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an introduction
Copyright 1997-2016 by M.T. Tham
Types of Columns
Basic Equipment and Operation
Distillation Principles
Vapour Liquid Equilibria
Distillation Column Design
Effects of the Number of Trays or Stages
Factors Affecting Operation
Other Resources
Copyright Information
Costello Distillation
Trays and Plates
The terms "trays" and "plates" are used interchangeably. There are many types of tray designs, but the most common ones are :
Bubble cap trayBubble cap trays
A bubble cap tray has riser or chimney fitted over each hole, and a cap that covers the riser. Bubble capThe cap is mounted so that there is a space between riser and cap to allow the passage of vapour. Vapour rises through the chimney and is directed downward by the cap, finally discharging through slots in the cap, and finally bubbling through the liquid on the tray.
Valve trays
Valve trayIn valve trays, perforations are covered by liftable caps. Vapour flows lifts the caps, thus self creating a flow area for the passage of vapour. The lifting cap directs the vapour to flow horizontally into the liquid, thus providing better mixing than is possible in sieve trays.

Valve trayClose up of valve tray
Valve trays (photos courtesy of Paul Phillips)

Sieve traySieve trays
Sieve trays are simply metal plates with holes in them. Vapour passes straight upward through the liquid on the plate. The arrangement, number and size of the holes are design parameters.


Because of their efficiency, wide operating range, ease of maintenance and cost factors, sieve and valve trays have replaced the once highly thought of bubble cap trays in many applications.
Liquid and Vapour Flows in a Tray Column
The next few figures show the direction of vapour and liquid flow across a tray, and across a column.

Fluid flow across columntrayflo.gif (2091 bytes)

Each tray has 2 conduits, one on each side, called ‘downcomers’. Liquid falls through the downcomers by gravity from one tray to the one below it. activtra.gif (2090 bytes)The flow across each plate is shown in the above diagram on the right.

A weir on the tray ensures that there is always some liquid (holdup) on the tray and is designed such that the the holdup is at a suitable height, e.g. such that the bubble caps are covered by liquid.

Being lighter, vapour flows up the column and is forced to pass through the liquid, via the openings on each tray. The area allowed for the passage of vapour on each tray is called the active tray area.

tray.jpg (14264 bytes)The picture  on the left is a photograph of a section of a pilot scale column equiped with bubble capped trays. The tops of the 4 bubble caps on the tray can just be seen. The down- comer in this case is a pipe, and is shown on the right. The frothing of the liquid on the active tray area is due to both passage of vapour from the tray below as well as boiling.

As the hotter vapour passes through the liquid on the tray above, it transfers heat to the liquid. In doing so, some of the vapour condenses adding to the liquid on the tray. The condensate, however, is richer in the less volatile components than is in the vapour. Additionally, because of the heat input from the vapour, the liquid on the tray boils, generating more vapour. This vapour, which moves up to the next tray in the column, is richer in the more volatile components. This continuous contacting between vapour and liquid occurs on each tray in the column and brings about the separation between low boiling point components and those with higher boiling points.

Tray Designs
A tray essentially acts as a mini-column, each accomplishing a fraction of the separation task. From this we can deduce that the more trays there are, the better the degree of separation and that overall separation efficiency will depend significantly on the design of the tray. Trays are designed to maximise vapour-liquid contact by considering the
liquid distribution and
vapour distribution
on the tray. This is because better vapour-liquid contact means better separation at each tray, translating to better column performance. Less trays will be required to achieve the same degree of separation. Attendant benefits include less energy usage and lower construction costs.

Gravity distributorSpray distributor
Liquid distributors - Gravity (left), Spray (right)
(photos courtesy of Paul Phillips)

There is a clear trend to improve separations by supplementing the use of trays by additions of packings. Packings are passive devices that are designed to increase the interfacial area for vapour-liquid contact. The following pictures show 3 different types of packings.

pack1.gif (1883 bytes)pack2.gif (1644 bytes)pack3.gif (1483 bytes)

These strangely shaped pieces are supposed to impart good vapour-liquid contact when a particular type is placed together in numbers, without causing excessive pressure-drop across a packed section. This is important because a high pressure drop would mean that more energy is required to drive the vapour up the distillation column.

Structured packing
Structured packing (photo courtesy of Paul Phillips)

Packings versus Trays
A tray column that is facing throughput problems may be de-bottlenecked by replacing a section of trays with packings. This is because:
packings provide extra inter-facial area for liquid-vapour contact
efficiency of separation is increased for the same column height
packed columns are shorter than trayed columns
Packed columns are called continuous-contact columns while trayed columns are called staged-contact columns because of the manner in which vapour and liquid are contacted.

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