Microchannel reactors are a promising route for monetizing distributed natural gas resources. However, intensification and miniaturization represent a significant challenge for reactor control. Focusing on autothermal methane-steam reforming reactors, a novel microchannel reactor temperature control strategy based on confining a layer of phase-change material (PCM) between the reactor plates is introduced. Melting-solidification cycles, which occur with latent heat exchange at constant temperature, allow the PCM layer to act as an energy storage buffer—a “thermal flywheel”—constituting a distributed controller that mitigates temperature excursions caused by fluctuations in feedstock quality. A novel stochastic optimization algorithm for selecting the PCM layer thickness (i.e., distributed controller “tuning”) is introduced. Furthermore, a hierarchical control structure, whereby the PCM layer is complemented by a supervisory controller that addresses persistent disturbances, is proposed. The proposed concepts are illustrated in a comprehensive case study using a detailed two-dimensional reactor model. © 2013 American Institute of Chemical Engineers AIChE J, 59: 2051–2061, 2013
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