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Calculating column relief loads

Conventional, steady-state and dynamic simulation techniques are compared in

a study of relief loads for failure modes applied to a distillation column

Haribabu Chittibabu, Amudha Valli and Vineet Khanna Bechtel india PVE Ltd
Dipanjan Bhattacharya Bechtel Corporation

mergency relief in the process because of compositional changes method for determining relief load
industries aims to protect along the column height. The under abnormal conditions.
equipment, the environment conventional method of estimating This article considers different
and operating personnel from relief load (unbalanced heat methods for estimating relief load
abnormal conditions. Appropriate method) is normally conservative for a distillation column — a debu-
estimation of relief loads under and leads to bigger relief valves taniser in this case — and discusses
extreme conditions is important for and flare headers, but it is the the strengths and weaknesses of
the correct sizing of relief valves approach most widely practised. each method. There are many emer-
and flare headers, and for the selec- With increasing computing speed gency cases that apply to a
tion of disposal media. In addition, and software reliability, process distillation column, and estimation
during debottlenecking or revamp- simulation is increasingly used as of the maximum possible relief load
ing of process units, adding a new an important tool for estimating requires an understanding of plant
relief valve and modifying the relief relief load and properties. Steady- behaviour and identification of the
system can be very costly and, in state simulation can also be used to worst case.
terms of construction, difficult to estimate the relief load within limi-
implement. tations and can overcome some of Case study: a debutaniser
Estimating accurate relief loads the assumptions envisaged in the The debutaniser column separates
for distillation columns under vari- conventional method. Dynamic liquified petroleum gas (LPG)
ous conditions is more complex simulation provides an alternative components from light naphtha.


To flare, R 135°F PC
174 psia Off gas
Pset = 214 psia
196000 lb/hr
Reflux Reflux Sour water
pump drum
Feed, F FC
673700 lb/hr, 301°F Distillate, sour LPG, D
Feed TC FC
58120 lb/hr, 104°F
412°F Steam
391°F FC
178 psia Bottom, naphtha product, B
615600 lb/hr, 391°F

Figure 1 Distillation column (debutaniser)

www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487 PTQ Q2 2010 55

The overhead includes a reach and act upon the top tray
cooling water total R liquid
condenser, reflux drum • There is enough top tray liquid
and off-gas valve, which available to generate vapour during
is normally closed. The upset conditions.
debutaniser operates at To determine Qunbalanced, the first
174 psia and relief is set step is to develop a sketch around
at 214 psia. The debutan- drum the affected system (see Figure 2)
Top tray
iser bottom is heated by and perform a mass and energy
a thermosyphon reboiler balance in line with the upset
utilising medium-pressure Excess heat
D, hD
steam. Figure 1 shows a F, hF

flow diagram of the debu- Debutaniser Qunbalanced = F hF - B hB - D hD + QR - QC - (F - B - D) hL

taniser under evaluation. R = Qunbalanced (excess) / λ
Major relief conditions or where
plant situations identified QR F = Debutaniser or column feed
for the debutaniser are rate at relief
loss of reflux, loss of feed hF = Specific enthalpy of feed at
and site-wide power relief
failure. B, hB
B = Debutaniser or column
bottom rate at relief
Conventional method hB = Specific enthalpy of bottom at
The conventional approach Figure 2 Distillation column: unbalanced heat envelope relief
is also known as the D = Debutaniser distillate rate at
unbalanced heat method, column is available in various liter- relief
where a mass and energy balance is ature1 and hence is not covered in hD = Specific enthalpy of distillate
developed under relief conditions, detail here. at relief
based on the scenario under consid- There are several assumptions in QR = Reboiler heat input at relief
eration, to determine if there is any determining relief loads: QC = Condenser duty at relief
unbalanced or excess heat. The • Feed, products, reflux and top (generally, the design duty can be
unbalanced heat is divided by the tray liquid compositions are unal- considered)
latent heat of vapourisation of the tered during the relief condition hL = Specific enthalpy of top tray
top tray liquid to give the relief • Feed, product, reflux and strip- liquid
load: ping medium will continue at the λ = Latent heat of vapourisation
normal rate unless the hydraulics at of top tray liquid
Relief load = Qunbalanced (excess) / λ the relieving condition determine R = Relief load
otherwise Credit may be taken for reboiler
The conventional method for • Enthalpy is balanced on the top pinch. At relieving pressure, the
determining the relief load of a tray and all unbalanced heat will column temperature rises and the
reboiler temperature difference may
fall, leading to lower heat input to
 the column. This is reboiler pinch.2
Assume that the volume of the

sump is sufficient to maintain a
 constant reboiler circulation rate
and to re-rate the reboiler to obtain
 duty at relief condition. If there was

a significant reduction in the

 &EED reboiler duty at relief, the lighter
 Relief valve 2EFLUX
components would begin travelling
Reflux stops opens $ISTILLATE towards the bottom, causing the
 2ELIEF duty to rise again. Many designers
Reflux drum fills /VERHEAD
FROMCOLUMN re-rate the reboiler with feed

composition instead of bottoms
 composition in these circumstances,
to maintain a more conservative/
 realistic reboiler duty at relief.
Loss of reflux
Figure 3 Loss of reflux: flow vs time • Reflux stops immediately
• The reflux drum and the

56 PTQ Q2 2010 www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487

column sump level, and finally
 reaches zero
• The column overhead vapour

rate decreases, the reflux drum level
Peak pressure
 drops, and the distillate rate
 decreases to maintain the condenser
level and finally becomes zero.


 Qunbalanced = F hF - B hB - D hD + QR - QC - (F - B - D) hL


2ELIEFVALVESETPRESSURE Site-wide power failure (SWPF)

2ELIEFVALVEACCUMULATED • All electrical equipment fails,

therefore the feed pump, the debu-
             taniser bottom pumps and the
4IME MIN reflux pumps stop
• Assuming all cooling water
Figure 4 Loss of reflux: relief pressure vs time pumps are electrically driven, the
condensing duty is also immedi-
ately lost
• Steam is assumed to flow contin-

uously to the reboiler. Therefore:
Reflux drum fills

Qunbalanced = F hF - B hB - D hD + QR - QC - (F - B - D) hL


Dynamic simulation of relief

Chemical plants and refineries are

never truly at a steady state and
this is the case during relief. The
transient behaviour of a column is

2EFLUXDRUM best studied by means of dynamic
#OLUMNSUMP simulation, which has gained in
 importance since the 1990s and has
             been used increasingly successfully
as the reliability of simulation soft-
ware has increased. The equations
Figure 5 Loss of reflux: holdup level vs time for material, energy and composi-
tion balances include an additional
condenser flood, restricting the O O O accumulation term, which is
overhead vapour path and pressu- Q = F h - B h - D h + Q - Q - (F - B - D) hL differentiated with respect to time.
rising the column The inclusion of an accumulation
unbalanced F B D R C

• The feed is pumped and suffi- term enables the dynamic model to
cient head is available to maintain Loss of feed rigorously calculate compositional
the feed flow rate at relief • Feed stops immediately changes at each stage and to modify
condition • After some time, when the vapour/liquid equilibrium over
• Bottom product continues at the column level drops, the bottom time.
same rate. Therefore: product decreases to maintain the Unlike steady-state simulation,
dynamic simulation works within a
Relief load calculated by conventional method Pressure-Flow (P-F) network with
two basic equations: resistance and
volume balance. The resistance
Upset condition Relief load, lb/hr Temperature, °F Molecular weight equation defines flow between pres-
Loss of reflux 124 980 164 49.28
Loss of feed 43 650 164 49.28
sure hold-ups, and the volume
Site-wide power failure 342 796 164 49.28 balance equation defines material
balance at pressure hold-ups.
For the case under consideration,
Table 1 the accuracy of dynamic simulation

58 PTQ Q2 2010 www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487

provides extra inputs compared
with steady-state simulation:  
• Dimensions, especially volumes,

for all static equipment; column 
bottom and reflux drum levels are Pinched reboiler duty 

set to normal to simulate hold-ups  

• A vendor curve for pressure flow


relationships for rotating equipment

$UTY "45HR

• Specific conductance for control 
valves (Cv value) for pressure flow 

relationships, and an actuator mode
and rate for valve actuator  

• Detailed exchanger thermal  #OLUMNSUMP

design for calculation of pressure MOLECULARWEIGHT

drop and heat transfer coefficient. If 


detailed design is not available, a 4IME MIN

resistance term for the pressure
flow relationship and overall UA Figure 6 Loss of reflux: reboiler duty and molecular weight vs time
can be specified
• Actual tray information such as
diameter, flow path, distributor 
details, weir length and height are &EED
required for column hydraulic  "OTTOMS
performance 2EFLUX
• Controller for determining 
control actions during transitions. Feed stops /VERHEAD

Credit is not taken for the control Relief valve
action, which reduces the relief 
Relief valve
load; for example, the column close
bottom temperature controller 
Bottom & distillate
flow zero
reduces the steam flow rate when
the column bottom temperature 
rises at the relief condition. Relief flow

Loss of reflux condition

The reflux pump is stopped in five         
minutes (see Figure 3). The level in 4IME MIN

the reflux drum starts to increase

(see Figure 5). The overhead vapour Figure 7 Loss of feed: flow vs time
from the column continues to flow
through the condenser and fill the
reflux drum. After 17 minutes, the

reflux drum floods and the flow to
the condenser is blocked; the 

column pressure starts to increase 

(see Figure 4). When the column Peak pressure

reaches the set pressure, after 

about 21 minutes, the relief valve


starts to open. Note that the

pressure did not reach the maxi-
mum accumulated pressure for 

the given orifice area of the relief 

Initially, the level in the column  2ELIEFPRESSURE
bottom sump decreases as the  ACCUMULATEDPRESSURE
reflux is stopped, and the bottoms 
product level control valve closes to         
maintain the column sump level. 4IME MIN

The feed continues at a constant

rate, since its pressure upstream of Figure 8 Loss of feed: relief pressure vs time

www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487 PTQ Q2 2010 59

the control valve is higher than the
 relief pressure.
Reboiler sump level drops
Figure 6 shows the reboiler duty
and column sump molecular weight

during this relief condition. As soon
as the reflux is stopped, the molecu-
 lar weight in the column sump
Column sump level drops
increases, leading to an increase in

2EFLUXDRUM the boiling temperature of the
column bottoms, finally resulting
in reduced reboiler duty.
 After 17 minutes, when the path
for the overhead vapour was
blocked (condenser flooded), lighter

components started to fill the
column sump and reboiler duty
 again started to increase. After 21
minutes, when the relief valve
started to open, reboiler duty
Figure 9 Loss of feed: holdup level vs time settled, based on the column sump
composition at relief condition.

  Loss of feed condition

2EBOILERDUTY  The feed pump stops after five

minutes (see Figure 7). After 10

MOLECULARWEIGHT minutes, the column sump level
  drops (see Figure 9) and the bottom
Pinched reboiler duty
 flow is reduced to maintain the
$UTY "45HR

column sump level. As the column

overhead vapour starts to decrease

Condenser  (see Figure 7), the reflux drum level

decreases and the distillate flow

reduces to maintain the reflux drum

level. After 20 minutes, when distil-

 late and bottoms stop completely,
only the vapour generated by the
         reboiler is condensed by the
4IME MIN condenser. Figure 10 shows the
pinched reboiler duty, condenser
Figure 10 Loss of feed: reboiler duty and molecular weight vs time duty and column sump molecular
During loss of feed, the column
 sump molecular weight increases,
resulting in reduced reboiler duty.
"OTTOMS Since the top reflux is maintained

2EFLUX at normal flow, the lighter compo-
Site-wide power failure $ISTILLATE
2ELIEF nents start migrating towards the
 /VERHEAD bottom. The column profile starts

becoming lighter and the tempera-

ture profile starts lowering. This
also results in the lower molecular
Relief valve open weight of the column overhead

vapour. After about 11 minutes, the
condenser is not able to fully
 condense the overhead vapour due
to its lower molecular weight,
resulting in a rise in column pres-

         sure (see Figure 8). When the
4IME MIN column reaches the set pressure,
after about 23 minutes, the relief
Figure 11 Site-wide power failure: flow vs time valve starts to open. Note that the

60 PTQ Q2 2010 www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487

pinched reboiler duty at this time is
higher because of the lower molec- 
ular weight in the column sump.

After about 35 minutes, all non-
condensable or lighter components 
Peak pressure
exit the column, reboiler duty 
reduces again to about 42% of


normal, and the column stabilises
at total reflux mode. 

Site-wide power failure condition
Assume that site-wide power fail- 
ure occurs after five minutes (see  2ELIEFPRESSURE
Figure 11). During the power fail- 
ure, the feed pump, column bottom
pump, reflux pump and cooling 
water pump stop, and their respec- 4IME MIN
tive flows become zero immediately.
The column sump level increases Figure 12 Site-wide power failure: relief pressure vs time
immediately as the tray inventories
are dumped to the bottom (see
Figure 13). 
As the flows of feed, distillate,
bottoms and cooling water are cut,

the vapours generated by the
reboiler cause the column pressure Column sump
level increases
to increase (see Figure 12). After 11 
minutes, the relief valve opens.

Initially, there is mass transfer

between the vapours from the 

reboiler and the residual liquid on

the trays; progressively, as the trays 
dry up, the temperature and molec-
ular weight of the overhead
(relieving) vapour increase. The 
bottoms progressively become #OLUMNSUMP
heavier, resulting in a continuous 
decrease in the reboiler duty (see         
Figure 14). As the pinched reboiler
duty carries on decreasing, the
relief valve will eventually close. Figure 13 Site-wide power failure: hold-up level vs time
During power failure, the relief
load is relatively low compared
with the loss of feed condition  

because the pinched reboiler duty -OLECULARWEIGHT 

is much less due to the high molec-  2EBOILERDUTY
ular weight in the column. During
loss of feed, continuing reflux  Increasing column 
sump molecular weight
makes the column relatively lighter.

$UTY "45HR

The time taken to pressure up the

column is much higher in the loss

of feed scenario because the 
condenser is available, compared to 

the loss of power condition, Reboiler duty
where condensing duty was lost decreases 


Loss of reflux condition 4IME MIN

Figure 15 shows a comparison of

relief load values obtained for loss Figure 14 Site-wide power failure: reboiler duty and molecular weight vs time

www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487 PTQ Q2 2010 61

for the top tray at bubble point and
relief pressure when compared to

dynamic simulation, which simu-
Conventional method lates reflux failure, resulting in a
 higher temperature and molecular
 In a dynamic simulation of loss of
reflux, the column almost reaches a

 new steady-state condition after 25

Steady-state simulation
minutes. The rectifying section of
 the column goes dry and only the
stripping section is involved in

mass transfer. This new steady state
Dynamic simulation can also be reasonably simulated
using a steady-state simulator (see

Steady-state simulation to obtain
relief load and properties).

There is a marginal difference in
4IME MIN the relief load obtained by steady-
state simulation and dynamic
simulation because, in steady-state
Figure 15 Loss of reflux: relief load vs time simulation, the column pressure has
been raised to an accumulation
pressure (set pressure +10% or
Relief load calculated by dynamic simulation +16% based on the scenario),
whereas in dynamic simulation the
Upset condition Relief load, lb/hr Temperature, °F Molecular weight pressure safety valve starts opening
Loss of reflux 90 800 310 62.5 at its set pressure and the pressure
Loss of feed 93 500 117 44.2
does not reach the maximum accu-
Site-wide power failure 29 250 290 76
mulated pressure for the selected
orifice area. Note that the conven-
Table 2 tional method and steady-state
simulation are not time dependent,
of reflux. According to the conven- assumption is that all of the unbal- so the relief load appears constant
tional method, the predicted relief anced heat will vapourise the top in comparison with the dynamic
load is higher than the value tray liquid, which has a lower simulation relief load.
obtained by dynamic simulation. In specific enthalpy. The molecular
the conventional method, the weight and temperature are lower Loss of feed
Figure 16 shows a comparison of
relief load obtained for loss of feed.
The relief load calculated by the
 conventional method is lower than
by dynamic simulation. In the

conventional method, the condenser
 duty equals the design duty and
the cooling effect is predominant.

In dynamic simulation, the

 condenser duty is not fixed and the

hold-up of the individual compo-

Conventional method nents in the column determines the
 behaviour of the condenser.
Initially, during loss of feed, the

Dynamic reboiler duty decreases due to
simulation pinch and the lighter components

subsequently travel to the bottoms

and the whole column profile
 becomes lighter. Eventually, the
reboiler duty again starts to raise
due to the decrease in molecular
weight. This phenomenon cannot
Figure 16 Loss of feed: relief load vs time be evaluated with the conventional

62 PTQ Q2 2010 www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487

relief). This results in a conservative
estimate. The effect of hold-up
 volumes and time taken to pressu-
rise is normally ignored.

The conventional method is the
Conventional method
most conservative and requires less

effort during design. Steady-state
simulation to determine the relief

load has limited applicability. For

grassroots designs, the conventional
method may be the most appropri-

ate, as detailed design and/or
complete vendor information may
 not be available at the time of the
relief system’s design. It also helps
 Dynamic simulation to build in inherent design margins
for any possible future expansion/
 debottlenecking operation, and to
4IME MIN minimise changes during the late
stages of the project due to any
unforeseen design development.
Figure 17 Site-wide power failure: relief load vs time Dynamic simulation models the
system rigorously and tends to
method, but validates the hypothe- much lower than by the conven- provide more accurate results,
sis that, if the pinched duty is too tional method. In reality, during taking into account actual system
low, the designer should re-evalu- this condition, after the trays dry dynamics and configuration. It tries
ate the reboiler duty, assuming up the column simply acts as a boil- to emulate plant behaviour, which
lighter composition in the column ing pot without mass transfer. usually results in lower relief loads.
bottoms. The reboiler duty continuously Dynamic simulation also provides
decreases as the contents become relief loads based on time, which
Site-wide power failure heavier with time. According to the can be further analysed for optimis-
Figure 17 shows a comparison of conventional approach, reboiler ing the relief system’s design.
relief load obtained for site-wide duty and relief rate are calculated Dynamic simulation can be particu-
power failure. In dynamic simula- at one instant, which is at the start larly useful in unit revamps, to
tion, the relief load obtained is of the emergency (not at the start of limit the capital cost involved in
relief system modifications.

Steady-state simulation to obtain

To relief
relief load and properties
Debutaniser • Simulate the distillation column
To condenser Off gas into three sections: column, column
overhead system and reboiler
Reflux system
Recycle • The column can also be simulated
Reflux Sour water as a reboiled column (column with
a reboiler) with theoretical stages
Total liquid from pump and normal operating pressure
column bottom stage Distillate
(internal stream) ■ Define a reflux stream and
Internal Bottom feed it to the top tray
■ Define the feed stream and
assign an appropriate feed location.
Twinned Give a normal pressure drop across
column bottom the column
■ Fix the normal reboiler duty to
To external reboiler the energy stream and normal boil-
reboiler up ratio (as a specification)
Internal energy duty = external reboiler duty ■ Converge the column
Steam Condensate
• The column overhead system
includes a pressure safety valve
(PSV), cooling water condenser and
Figure 18 Distillation column – steady-state simulation – relief condition reflux drum

64 PTQ Q2 2010 www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487

■ Split the overhead vapour pressure + normal ∆P), the bubble where it is expected that the reliev-
from the column “to relief” and “to point of the column bottom ing scenario could approach the
condenser”, and set the “relief increases. The temperature differ- steady-state condition.
flow” rate to zero ence across the external reboiler
■ Simulate the condenser as a reduces, leading to lower external References
shell and tube exchanger with cool- reboiler duty (pinch). The calcu- 1 Sengupta M, Staats F Y, A new approach to
ing water on the tube side and lated duty of the external reboiler relief valve load calculations, May 1978.
overhead vapour totally condensed. should be equal to the energy 2 Rahimi Mofrad S, Tower pressure relief
calculation, Hydrocarbon Processing, Sep 2008.
Simulate the reflux drum, reflux stream attached to the column
pump, distillate product and reflux (internal energy stream). Iterate the
Haribabu Chittibabu is an Engineering
■ The reflux from the reflux column internal energy stream so Specialist in the Advanced Simulation and
pump should be same as the that it matches the external reboiler Analysis group at Bechtel India. He has a
defined reflux stream to the top duty. Even though the LMTD tends bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering
tray, so connect them through a to increase in the condenser, many from University of Madras and a master’s in
recycle block designers tend to restrict the maxi- petroleum refining and petrochemicals from
• The reboiler system should be mum condenser duty to design Anna University, India.
simulated as a separate shell and duty due to uncertainties in the Email: hchittib@bechtel.com
tube heat exchanger (external calculation. For this exercise, the Amudha Valli is an Engineering Specialist in
reboiler) in order to study reboiler condenser duty is limited to the the Advanced Simulation and Analysis group
at Bechtel, India. She has a bachelor’s degree
pinch at relieving conditions design duty only.
in chemical engineering from Coimbatore
■ Create an internal stream of Now the column is at relieving
Institute of Technology, India, and a master’s
the total liquid from the bottom pressure, giving an idea of the in chemical engineering from Anna University,
stage in the column. The internal reduced reboiler duty and the India. Email: an@bechtel.com
stream minus the column bottoms amount of overhead vapour. The Vineet Khanna is Project Engineering Manager
is the feed to the external reboiler, next step is to simulate the cause of with Bechtel India. He has a bachelor’s degree in
so split the internal stream to the overpressure to the maximum chemical engineering from the Indian Institute
external reboiler and twinned convergence of the column. For loss of Technology, Delhi, India.
column bottoms. Set the column of reflux, increase the flow “to Email: vkhanna@bechtel.com
bottoms flow rate to the twinned relief”, so that flow to the condenser Dipanjan Bhattacharya is an Engineering
column bottoms stream is reduced and, ultimately, the flow Specialist in the Advanced Simulation and
Analysis group at Bechtel, Houston. He has
■ Specify the normal UA to the to the reflux is reduced.
a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering
external reboiler Simultaneously reduce the distillate
from Jadavpur University, India, and master’s
■ Specify the hot side of the flow step-wise as the reflux pump in chemical engineering from University of
external reboiler. For the case under is stopped. At the same time, keep Oklahoma. Email: dbhatta1@bechtel.com
consideration, the hot-side inlet is iterating the column internal energy
steam at its saturation condition stream so that it matches the exter-
and the hot-side outlet is total nal reboiler duty. Ultimately, when Links
condensate the reflux and distillate are zero, all
• Increase the column pressure to the overhead vapour from the More articles from the following
relief pressure (PSV set pressure + column is the relieving flow. category:
allowable accumulation). Since the The above methodology can also Process Modelling & Simulation
bottom pressure is higher (relief be extended to other emergencies,

www.digitalrefining.com/article/1000487 PTQ Q2 2010 65