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New Method for Rearranging Refinery Distillation Sequence Could Improve Energy Efficiency Up to 48%

Refineries could trim millions of dollars in energy costs annually by using a new matrix method developed at Purdue University to rearrange the distillation sequence needed to separate crude petroleum into products.

The researchers have demonstrated their method on petroleum plants that separate crude, showing that 70 of the new sequences they identified could enable oil refineries to improve the energy efficiency of this step anywhere from 6% to 48%, said Rakesh Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering.

This is important because improving efficiency by 10 percent at a refinery processing 250,000 barrels per day would save in excess of $12 million a year if oil were priced at $70 a barrel. And that’s just a single refinery. For the US petroleum industry as a whole, this is a huge potential savings.

—Rakesh Agrawal

Research findings appeared online this month in the AIChE Journal, the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and will be included in a future issue of the magazine.

Chemical plants spend from 50% to 70% of their energy in separations, which are usually distillation steps required to separate a raw material into various products. In the case of petroleum, four distillation columns are needed to separate raw crude into five separate components: naphtha, kerosene, diesel fuel, gas oil and heavy residue. Some of these components are later used to make gasoline.

Separations are a huge part of what chemical plants do. Improving efficiency by only a few percentage points translates into major savings. For every 100 barrels of oil distilled, nearly two barrels go into supplying energy for distillation. That’s a lot of oil.

—Rakesh Agrawal

Crude petroleum is fed into the system, heated and vaporized. Vapor rises up the first column, and the product is collected in a condenser at the top. The process is repeated in additional columns, with the number of columns depending on how many components are to be separated.

But the distillation is more energy efficient depending on the order in which the columns are operated. Doctoral student Vishesh Shah created a computer algorithm that identifies all of the possible sequences and then determines which require the least heat and energy. The Purdue researchers used their new technique to determine there are nearly 6,000 possible sequences for the four columns used in petroleum distillation.

Petroleum refineries have been using the same sequence for about 75 years, and it is the most energy efficient of the sequences known to industry, the Purdue researchers confirmed using their new method.

The researchers also determined, however, that 70 of the new sequences identified have potential to consume less energy than the sequence now used by industry. Those 70 sequences range from being 6-48% more energy efficient than the method currently in use.

Just because a particular sequence would be more energy efficient doesn’t mean it would be practical for industry to implement. There are a lot of challenges. Some are easy to build and just involve trivial retrofitting, and some are more difficult. So we’ll need to work with companies and refinery experts to determine which sequences could be built.

—Rakesh Agrawal

The journal paper was written by Shah and Agrawal. Previous, related work also involved Arun Giridhar, a Purdue postdoctoral researcher. As a supplement to the paper, the researchers also provided more than a gigabyte of data on all of the distillation sequences identified using the technique for the separation of mixtures containing up to eight components.

Purdue has filed a patent application for the new crude distillation sequences.


  • Vishesh H. Shah, Rakesh Agrawal (2009) A matrix method for multicomponent distillation sequences. AIChE Journal doi: 10.1002/aic.12118



This seems to save 470 barrels per day (for the given refinery) equivalent to a net efficiency gain of about 0.188% ???

Henry Gibson

Use nuclear heat; even if it is electric heaters, it can save expensive oil. Or just use coal to supply the heat as a first step to converting liquid fuel production to coal and eliminating many barrels of imported expensive oil. The French can use supplemental hydrogen made even with electrolysis at night. Uranium is far cheaper than oil. ..HG..

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