Fractionating columns are widely used in the chemical process industries where large quantities of liquids have to be distilled.
Industrial distillation is typically performed in large, vertical cylindrical columns known as “distillation towers” or “distillation columns” that can be many metres high.
The fractionating column is filled with special packing material. This material improves the separation between the liquids being distilled. The reason that fractional distillation gives better separation between the liquids is because the column material provides “theoretical plates” on which the refluxing liquid can condense, re-evaporate, and condense again, essentially distilling the compound over and over. The more volatile liquids will tend to push towards the top of the fractionating column, while lower boiling liquids will stay towards the bottom, giving a better separation between the liquids.
Industrial distillation towers are usually operated at a continuous steady state. Fractionating columns can have outlets at intervals up the column so that multiple products having different boiling ranges may be withdrawn from a column distilling a multi-component feed stream. The “lightest” products with the lowest boiling points exit from the top of the columns and the “heaviest” products with the highest boiling points exit from the bottom.
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