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Plug Flow Reactor

Product Description
By: Matthew Grisewood

A plug flow reactor is a type chemical reactor which is a tank that has
a pipe-shape, walls coated with a catalyst, and an inlet flow of pure
reactant.

In the discussion of plug flow reactors, we will consider the following


topics:
 What is a plug flow reactor?
 When are plug flow reactors used?
 Reactor Limitation
 When is a plug flow reactor most useful?

To start, here is a simple illustration of what a typical plug flow reactor


may look like:

Inlet Flow Outlet Flow

Figure 1: A simple schematic of a plug flow reactor. A reactant is inserted into the tank via the inlet flow.
The reactant is converted to product in the reactor, and the product flows out of the reactor by the
outlet flow.
Reactors are used in the chemical industry for millions of
processes, from the production of high-fructose corn
syrup (HFCS) to the formation of polyester and
everywhere in between. There are many different types of
reactors due to the numerous different factors that can
control the formation of product during the reaction. It is
the responsibility of chemical engineers to run these
reactions so that the amount of product can be
maximized while the cost is minimized.

One of the many different types of reactors is the plug


flow reactor (PFR). Plug flow reactors are an idealized
WHAT IS A reactor where there is no mixing involved in the reactor. It
PLUG is the opposite of the continuous-stirred tank reactor
(CSTR), where the reaction mixture is perfectly mixed.
FLOW Since a PFR is an idealized reactor, it does not truly exist
in the real world. It is impossible to have no mixing at all
REACTOR? during a reaction, but the amount of mixing in the reactor
can be minimized. There are several advantages to
minimizing the amount of mixing so that the reactor
closely resembles a PFR. These advantages will be
explained in further detail later. The plug flow reactor has
an inlet flow composed of the reactants. The reactant
flows into the reactor and is then converted into the
product by a certain chemical reaction. The product
flows out of the reactor through the outlet flow. An
overview of the reactor can be seen in Figure 1. In many
scenarios, a catalyst is involved in the reaction. A catalyst
is a substance that is not involved in the chemical
reaction but helps the reaction proceed at a faster rate. In
biological reactions, an enzyme, which is a biological
catalyst, coats the wall, and substrate is imported
through the inlet flow. A diagram of how the enzyme
coats the interior of the wall can be seen below in Figure
2.

Inlet Flow Outlet Flow

Figure 2: An interior view of a plug flow reactor. The above diagram approximates what a plug
flow diagram would look like if it were to be sliced in half. The large rectangles show the inner and
outer surfaces of the reactor. The reactants come in through the inlet flow (represented by
squares) and react to form the product (represented by triangles) which is eliminated from the
reactor through the outlet flow. The reaction occurs with the use of a catalyst (represented by
circles), which are attached to the interior wall of the PFR. The actual reactions that are taking
place are represented by double arrows in the reactor. Note that the reactant molecules must
combine with the catalyst molecules at the interior wall of the reactor since the catalyst is not
allowed to move from the wall.

Plug flow reactors are frequently used in the chemical


industry due to the non-mixing property of the reactors. It
WHEN may seem counter intuitive that a non-mixed reactor
ARE PLUG would be more advantageous than a mixed reactor such
as a CSTR, but this is frequently the case. We will
FLOW examine this phenomenon later. Plug flow reactors are
REACTORS frequently used in biological reactions when the substrate
flows into the reactor and is converted to product with the
USED? use of an enzyme. Since plug flow reactors have an inlet
and outlet stream, they are useful for continuous
production. The streams are opposite of a batch reactor,
which is a reactor that has a constant volume and has no
incoming or outgoing streams. Some of the cases when
plug flow reactors are most useful are for continuous
production, large-scale reactions, or fast reactions.

One of the most important problems in the chemical


engineering field is the choice of a certain type of
REACTOR reactor. There are many different types of reactors, and
LIMITATION we have already listed some of them (PFR, CSTR,
batch). It is important for chemical engineers to analyze
the production process and determine which type of
reactor will maximize profit. It is also useful to determine
whether changing process variables will help in the
production of a greater amount of product.

In any reactor, there is something that limits the rate of


OVERVIEW production. The occurrence that limits the rate of
production in the process is known as the limitation.
OF There are three major kinds of limitation in reactors:
REACTOR  mass transfer limitation
ANALYSIS  thermodynamic limitation
 kinetic limitation.

Let’s start with kinetic limitation.


Kinetic limitation refers to the situation when the reaction
taking place in the reactor limits the rate of production.
KINETIC Reaction kinetics is based on concentration, which is the
LIMITATION amount of mass per unit volume. A typical reaction rate
may look something like this:

𝑟 = 𝑘1 𝑆 𝑇 for the reaction 𝑆+𝑇 𝑃

In this equation, [S] and [T] are the respective


concentrations of the reactants in the chemical reaction,
and k1 is the rate constant, which is determined based on
experimental data of the reaction. In kinetic limitation, the
concentrations of the reactants may be low or the rate
constant may be low, resulting in a slow reaction rate.
The reaction rate determines the rate at which product is
made. Now, let’s talk about mass transfer limitation.

Mass transfer limitation refers to the situation where the


movement of reactant to the enzyme controls the
MASS formation of product. Mass transfer limitation is most
TRANSFER commonly found in heterogeneous reactions, which are
reactions between two different chemical phases, such
LIMITATION as a liquid and a gas. Sometimes, the reactant does not
reach the enzyme very quickly, and the slowest step in
the product formation is transferring the mass from one
end where the reactant is plentiful (known as the bulk) to
the surface of the enzyme or the catalyst. When a reactor
is mass transfer limited, there is a large difference
between the concentration of reactant at the bulk and
concentration at the surface. If a reactor is mass transfer
limited, increasing the flow rate will increase the
formation of product because the reactant will meet the
catalyst more quickly. In mass transfer limitation, the
movement of the reactant from the bulk to the surface of
the enzyme is what determines the rate of production.
Figure 3 illustrates how mass transfer limitation works in a
reactor.

Bulk Enzyme Surface

Bulk Enzyme Surface

Figure 3: An illustration of mass transfer limitation. In reactor 1 (top), the reactor is not
mass transfer limited because the concentration of the substrate (represented by triangles)
is constant throughout the reactor. However in reactor 2 (bottom), the substrate
concentration is much higher in the bulk than at the surface of the enzyme. The substrate
does not move quickly enough in the reactor, and the reactor is therefore mass transfer
limited.

If a process is neither mass transfer limited nor kinetically


THERMODYNAMIC limited, the process must be thermodynamically limited.
Thermodynamics governs all processes if they are given
LIMITATION time to react. Any chemical reaction can only proceed as
far as thermodynamics will allow. Once the reaction has
reached equilibrium, the rate of formation of product
cannot be changed unless the thermodynamics of the
situation are changed. Changes in the thermodynamics of
the reaction can be predicted by Le Chatelier’s Principle. Le
Chatelier’s Principle states that a change in the pressure,
concentration, or temperature of the system at equilibrium
will shift the equilibrium to undo the change that was done.
In thermodynamic limitation, the reaction mixture is given
plenty of time to react, and the reaction will proceed to
equilibrium. This equilibrium is what determines the rate of
production.

Any one of the above limitations can govern the rate of


production for a given process. The question then becomes
WHEN IS “When is a PFR most advantageous?” In thermodynamic
A PLUG limitation, the reactant is given plenty of time to react, and
equilibrium governs the rate of production of product. A
FLOW PFR may be useful, but it will not vary drastically since the
REACTOR reaction is at equilibrium already. The situation is similar
when discussing mass transfer. The use of a plug flow
MOST reactor may be advantageous, but the reactor does not
USEFUL? itself increase the rate at which concentration at the bulk
reaches the concentration at the surface of the enzyme or
catalyst. A plug flow reactor is highly advantageous when
the reaction is kinetically limited. The reason that a PFR is
so advantageous when dealing with a kinetically limited
reaction is because the concentration starts very high. The
reaction rate is dependent on the concentration of reactant,
and the concentration of the reactant in the plug flow
reactor is very high since the reaction mixture is not
agitated to mix the solution. A plug flow reactor is
therefore more advantageous than a CSTR because the
reactant is immediately diluted to a constant lower reactant
concentration when it enters the reactor. Figure 4 illustrates
this advantage of a plug flow reactor.
Substrate Concentration
CSTR

PFR

In Distance in the Reactor Out

Figure 4: Graphical representation of situation when a plug flow reactor is advantageous. Before the substrate
reaches either reactor, the concentration is the same. In a CSTR (thin line), the concentration of the substrate is
immediately diluted to a constant value upon entering the reactor. However, in a PFR (thick line), the concentration
of the substrate goes down slowly. The shaded region shows that a PFR is advantageous because of the period of
time in the reactor when the concentration is higher than the concentration in the CSTR. This value in the shaded
region will exceed the value where the concentration of substrate is lower for a PFR because of the higher values
for the concentration in the reaction rate equation. Therefore, a plug flow reactor is the most advantageous reactor
for most kinetically limited scenarios.

There are many scenarios that must be considered when


CONCLUSION deciding on which type of reactor to use for a certain
process. A plug flow reactor is one of many types of
reactors. It is most useful when the reaction is not
allowed to reach equilibrium, and the reaction is
kinetically limited by the reaction rate. There are
exceptions to the fact that a PFR is always better than a
CSTR when the reaction is kinetically limited (a situation
where there is an optimal concentration for the reaction to
work is one example). However, most of the time a PFR
does have a higher rate of product production than a
CSTR if the reaction is kinetically limited. It is still
necessary to analyze the details of the process before
deciding that a plug flow reactor is the correct choice for
the process.

Batch Reactor- A reactor with constant volume and no


GLOSSARY inlet or outlet streams.

Continuous-Stirred Tank Reactor (CSTR)- An idealized


reactor where the solution is perfectly mixed so that the
concentration of the substrate in the reactor is constant.

Kinetic Limitation- The situation when the rate of the


reaction in the tank limits the rate of production.

Mass Transfer Limitation- The situation when the


movement of reactant to the enzyme controls the
formation of product.

Plug Flow Reactor (PFR)- An idealized reactor where there


is no mixing involved as the substrate moves through the
reactor.

Thermodynamic Limitation- The situation when the


equilibrium for the reaction governs the formation of
product.