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Keywords:

  • process synthesis;
  • design;
  • steam reforming;
  • process integration

It is common practice in chemical engineering to design processes sequentially. The type of product desired determines the choice of the feed materials that are introduced into the reactor networks. These in turn lead into the separation networks. The flows of heat and work are the final part of the sequence to be considered, with the application of heat exchanger networks, and any deficiency or excess in these flows is usually compensated for with the use of utilities. Although the ongoing research into reactor, separation, and heat exchanger optimization is of indubitable value, an aspect that is often overlooked in conventional research is the question: How do changes to one of the elements in the sequence affect the others? Most process designers do not address such matters until the next optimization of the sequence begins. The result of this sequential approach to design is that processes may contain a few very efficient units, but may also have others that are highly inefficient. A graphical technique that incorporates the flows of heat and work into the design of the process at a very early stage is proposed. The technique can be used to prepare flow sheets that represent a synthesized version of the elements that make up the complete process, rendering each component highly efficient. This new design tool uses the thermodynamic properties of enthalpy (representative of process heat requirements) and Gibbs free energy (representative of process work requirements) to develop process flow sheets that operate as close to reversibly as possible, and can be used as a foundation for more detailed refinements to achieve the best possible result. A case was described in a previous paper in which the graphical technique was applied to gasification. The application of the technique to the production of syngas by the steam reforming of natural gas is detailed. We show that the steam reforming process can be operated with increased reversibility and can actually consume carbon dioxide, thus representing a process with a carbon efficiency of greater than 100%, if the way in which all the process units interact with one another is used to utmost advantage. © 2013 American Institute of Chemical Engineers AIChE J, 59: 3714–3729, 2013