Distillation: What are Distillation Columns?

Types of Distillation Columns

There are many types of distillation columns, each designed to perform specific types of separations, and each design differs in terms of complexity.

Batch Columns

In batch operation, the feed to the column is introduced batch-wise. That is, the column is charged with a 'batch' and then the distillation process is carried out. When the desired task is achieved, a next batch of feed is introduced.

Continuous Columns

In contrast, continuous columns process a continuous feed stream. No interruptions occur unless there is a problem with the column or surrounding process units. They are capable of handling high throughputs and are the most common of the two types. We shall concentrate only on this class of columns.

Types of Continuous Columns

Continuous columns can be further classified according to:

the nature of the feed that they are processing

the number of product streams they have

where the extra feed exits when it is used to help with the separation

the type of column internals

Main Components of Distillation Columns

Distillation columns are made up of several components, each of which is used either to tranfer heat energy or enhance materail transfer.
A typical distillation contains several major components:

The vertical shell houses the column internals and together with the condenser and reboiler, constitute a distillation column. A schematic of a typical distillation unit with a single feed and two product streams is shown below:

Distillation Column

Basic Operation and Terminology

The liquid mixture that is to be processed is known as the feed and this is introduced usually somewhere near the middle of the column to a tray known as the feed tray. The feed tray divides the column into a top (enriching or rectification) section and a bottom (stripping) section. The feed flows down the column where it is collected at the bottom in the reboiler.

Heat is supplied to the reboiler to generate vapour. The source of heat input can be any suitable fluid, although in most chemical plants this is normally steam. In refineries, the heating source may be the output streams of other columns. The vapour raised in the reboiler is re-introduced into the unit at the bottom of the column. The liquid removed from the reboiler is known as the bottoms product or simply, bottoms.

The vapour moves up the column, and as it exits the top of the unit, it is cooled by a condenser. The condensed liquid is stored in a holding vessel known as the reflux drum. Some of this liquid is recycled back to the top of the column and this is called the reflux. The condensed liquid that is removed from the system is known as the distillate or top product.


Thus, there are internal flows of vapour and liquid within the column as well as external flows of feeds and product streams, into and out of the column.

Part 1: What are Distillation Columns?

Part 2: Distillation Column: Column Internals

For a more expanded article about distillation, please visit:

Distillation Column: How oil refining works

Graphic courtesy of Bismarck State College National Energy Center of Excellence

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