Most of the published studies have focused on the thermal integration of nonreactive distillation columns. The key limitation of reactive distillation (RD) technology is that the necessary conditions (such as pressure and temperature) for the reaction must match those of distillation. Owing to this constraint, the reaction conversion may be adversely affected at the elevated pressure in the reactive section of an internally heat integrated distillation column (HIDiC). This fact forces us to adopt an external heat integration approach for an industrial heterogeneously catalyzed ethyl tert-butyl ether (ETBE) RD column. The direct vapor recompression column (VRC) is an external heat integration scheme that is successfully used as an energy efficient scheme for separating a close-boiling mixture. Interestingly, there exists a large temperature difference between the two ends of the representative ETBE column, and it makes the external heat integration more challenging. Aiming to improve the thermal efficiency of the ETBE column under the VRC framework, various heat pump arrangements with intermediate reboiler(s) (IR(s)) are explored and analyzed with performing a comparative study in terms of energy consumption and economics. To improve further the thermal efficiency, in this contribution, a novel multistage vapor recompression RD column with IRs is introduced addressing a number of practical concerns. An algorithm for the proposed column is formulated showing the sequential steps involved in heat integration. It is inspected that the proposed multistage vapor recompression RD system appears overwhelmingly superior to the classical vapor recompression RD and its conventional stand alone column providing a significant savings in energy as well as cost. © 2012 American Institute of Chemical Engineers AIChE J, 59: 761–771, 2013
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