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Petroleum Processing

Atmospheric and Vacuum Distillation Units

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Atmospheric and Vacuum Distillation Units

Distillation of crude oil is carried out in two units, first in an Atmospheric Distillation Unit (also known as Crude Distillation Unit, CDU), with further processing of the residue from atmospheric distillation in the Vacuum Distillation Unit (VDU), as illustrated in Figure 4.2. For sake of simplicity, Figure 4.2 does not include the network of heat exchangers and pump around loops to pre-heat the desalted crude before it is fed into the fired furnace. In the furnace, the crude is heated to the desired temperatures (700-750° F) such that all the distillate fraction and roughly 10-20% of the bottom product are evaporated, depending on the volatility of crude oil. The two-phase mixture is then introduced into the CDU flash zone for separation of vapor and liquid streams where vapor fraction rises toward the top of the column and the liquid fraction is subjected to stripping with steam to recover the low-boiling distillate components dissolved in heavier liquid before sending the bottom product (i.e., atmospheric distillation residue) to the vacuum distillation unit.

Crude oil added to fixer with water then mixer with chemical additives then a settling tank to separate brine and desalted crude oil
Figure 4.1. Desalting by using gravity settling to separate brine from crude oil.
Source: S. Eser and M. R. Riazi, “Crude Oil Refining Processes” In Petroleum Refining and Natural Gas Processing, Editors: M. R. Riazi, S. Eser, J. L. Peña, ASTM International, West Conshohocken, PA, 2013, p. 105.
see accessible version below
Figure 4.2. An overall flow for fractional distillation of crude oil.
Click here for a text alternative to the figure above

Schematic of an overall flow for fractional distillation.

Crude oil enters a desalter and then a heater. It then undergoes an atmospheric distillation where it refluxes. From that Heavy Gas Oil, Light Gas Oil, Kerosene, Light. & Heavy Naphtha and LPG and Fuel gas are separated out. The atmospheric residue goes to a separate heater and then into a vacuum distillation right where light vacuum gas oil and heavy vacuum gas oil are separated out along with vacuum residue.

Source: Dr. Semih Eser

A temperature gradient is established in the column by removing heat from the overhead vapor. The column condenses the naphtha fraction and sends a portion of the liquid naphtha, as reflux, to the column to achieve a good separation of the distillate products drawn from the side of the distillation column, such as kerosene, LGO, and HGO, as seen in the diagram. Steam strippers on the side of the column also provide reflux to the main column to help with clean separation of the distillate products. Additional reflux is provided to the main column by pump around loops associated with heat exchangers (see Figure 4.3, below, and Figure 4.8 in the textbook) for preheating the crude. Counter-current flow of vapor and liquid streams through the contact stages (e.g., trays) in the main column, enabling good separation of the distillate fractions. The temperature at the bottom of CDU is limited to 700-750° F to prevent cracking – breaking of the chemical bonds between carbon atoms in the aliphatic hydrocarbons constituting the crude oil. Cracking would cause coking (accumulation of carbonaceous solids) on the metal surfaces in the column and interferes with fractionation in distillation. Vacuum distillation is necessary to fractionate the heavy distillates because further increase in temperature would cause thermal cracking of the feed components. In HYSYS Project 1 assignment, you will learn how to introduce crude assay data to a distillation simulator and calculate the yields of naphtha, kerosene, diesel, atmospheric gas oil, and residue for different crudes.

atmospheric distillation unit diagram: see text above for more information or contact instructor
Figure 4.3. A schematic diagram of atmospheric distillation unit illustrating the feed heat exchangers, pump around loops, and side steam strippers (adapted from [3]).

Source: Dr. Semih Eser

As shown in Figure 4.4, below (and in Figure 4.10 in the textbook), the atmospheric residue is reheated in a fired furnace to 730-850° F before introduction into the vacuum distillation unit (VDU). The furnace outlet temperature is selected depending on the thermal reactivity (or coking propensity of crude oil, as will be discussed further) and the desired level of separation in the column. Steam ejectors, or, more recently, vacuum pumps, are used to create a vacuum for evaporation of the light vacuum gas oil and heavy vacuum gas oil fractions. The temperature and pressure in VDU also depend on whether steam is introduced, or the separation is carried out without the steam addition in “dry” towers, varying between 10 to 30 mmHg at the bottom of the tower. Lower pressures and higher temperatures are used in dry towers. To minimize the pressure difference between the bottom and top of the column, some special packing materials are used (see, for example, Figure 4.5) instead of trays for providing contact between liquid and vapor streams to improve fractionation.

see accessible version below
Figure 4.4. Vacuum distillation unit and processing paths for vacuum distillates.
Click here for a text alternative to the figure above

Schematic of a vacuum distillation unit.

Atmospheric residue enters a heater and then a vacuum distillation tower. This tower has a pressure of 3 mmHg at the top and 28mgHG at the bottom. Steam is used to create the vacuuming the tower and flaring and sour water are products of steam production. The vacuum distillation tower yields heavy distillate which can become lube oil base stocks or be sent to conversion units (hydrocracking). Additionally, there is some vacuum residue which goes to desasphalting or coking

Source: Dr. Semih Eser
Packing materials, look like hollow metal cylinders with rectangles punched out of the sides and open ends
Figure 4.5. Examples of packing materials to achieve low-pressure drop in vacuum distillation columns [4].
Source: [4]Tower Packing. Retrieved on April 16, 2014

The heavy distillates (light vacuum gas oil and heavy vacuum gas oil) separated in VDU are further processed in downstream separation and conversion units to produce lubricating oil base stocks, or as feedstock for hydrocracking to produce light and middle distillates. The residue from vacuum distillation (VDR) can be upgraded into marketable products and fuels using processes such as visbreaking, deasphalting, and coking, as will be discussed in later sections.


[3] Refining Overview - Petroleum, Products and Processes, AIChE, 2000, p. 10-4.

[4] Tower Packing. Retrieved on April 16, 2014.