Membrane Modeling, Simulation and Optimization for Propylene/Propane Separation

  • Ali Alshehri

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Energy efficiency is critical for sustainable industrial growth and the reduction of environmental impacts. Energy consumption by the industrial sector accounts for more than half of the total global energy usage and, therefore, greater attention is focused on enhancing this sector's energy efficiency. It is predicted that by 2020, more than 20% of today's energy consumption can be avoided in countries that have effectively implemented an action plan towards efficient energy utilization. Breakthroughs in material synthesis of high selective membranes have enabled the technology to be more energy efficient. Hence, high selective membranes are increasingly replacing conventional energy intensive separation processes, such as distillation and adsorption units. Moreover, the technology offers more special features (which are essential for special applications) and its small footprint makes membrane technology suitable for platform operations (e.g., nitrogen enrichment for oil and gas offshore sites). In addition, its low maintenance characteristics allow the technology to be applied to remote operations. For these reasons, amongst other, the membrane technology market is forecast to reach $\$$16 billion by 2017. This thesis is concerned with the engineering aspects of membrane technology and covers modeling, simulation and optimization of membranes as a stand-alone process or as a unit operation within a hybrid system. Incorporating the membrane model into a process modeling software simplifies the simulation and optimization of the different membrane processes and hybrid configurations, since all other unit operations are pre-configured. Various parametric analyses demonstrated that only the membrane selectivity and transmembrane pressure ratio parameters define a membrane's ability to accomplish a certain separation task. Moreover, it was found that both membrane selectivity and pressure ratio exhibit a minimum value that is only defined by the feed composition, product purity and the recovery ratio. These findings were utilized to develop simple and accurate empirical correlations to predict the attainability behavior in real membranes, which showed good agreement with experimental and simulation results for various applications. Furthermore, the attainability of the most promising two and three-stage membrane systems are discussed by considering the complete well mixed assumption. The same behaviors that describe single-stage attainability are also recognized for multiple-stages. This discussion leads to a major discovery regarding the nature of the relationship between the attainability parameters in a multiple-stage membrane system with that of a single-stage system. Study of the economics of the multiple-stage membrane process for propylene/propane separation identifies the technology as a potential alternative to the conventional distillation process, even at the existing membrane performance, but conditionally at low to moderate membrane cost and sufficient durability. To study the energy efficiency of membrane retrofitting to an existing distillation process, a shortcut method was developed to calculate the minimum practical separation energy (MPSE) of the membrane and distillation processes. It was discovered that the MPSE of the hybrid system is only determined by the membrane selectivity and the applied transmembrane pressure ratio in three stages. At the first stage, when selectivity is low, the membrane process is not competitive to the distillation process. At the second medium selectivity stage, the membrane/distillation hybrid system can help to reduce the energy consumption; the higher the membrane selectivity the lower the energy requirement. The energy conservation is further improved as the pressure ratio increases. At the third stage, when both the selectivity and pressure ratio are high, the hybrid system will change to a single-stage membrane unit, resulting in a significant reduction in energy consumption. The energy at this stage continues to slowly decrease with selectivity but increases slightly with pressure ratio. Overall, the higher the membrane selectivity, the more energy that is saved. These results should be very useful in guiding membrane research and their applications. Finally, an economic study is conducted concerning hypothetical membranes and the necessity for low cost and more durable membranes rises as the key for a viable hybrid process.
Date of AwardJun 2015
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Physical Science and Engineering
SupervisorZhiping Lai (Supervisor)


  • Membrane
  • Hybrid
  • Singl-Stage
  • Multi-Stage
  • Optimization
  • Modeling

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