Within refineries there are numerous other smaller distillation towers, called columns, designed to separate specific and unique products, which all work on the same principles as atmospheric towers. For example, a depropanizer is a small column designed to separate propane from isobutane and heavier components. Another larger column is used to separate ethyl benzene and xylene. Small “bubbler” towers, called strippers, use steam to remove trace amounts of light products (gasoline) from heavier product streams.
Control temperatures, pressures and reflux must be maintained within operating parameters to prevent thermal cracking from taking place within distillation towers. Relief systems are provided because excursions in pressure, temperature or liquid levels may occur if automatic control devices fail. Operations are monitored in order to prevent crude from entering the reformer charge. Crude feedstocks may contain appreciable amounts of water in suspension which separate during start-up and, along with water remaining in the tower from steam purging, settle in the bottom of the tower. This water may heat to the boiling point and create an instantaneous vaporization explosion upon contact with the oil in the unit.
The preheat exchanger, preheat furnace and bottoms exchanger, atmospheric tower and vacuum furnace, vacuum tower and overhead are susceptible to corrosion from hydrochloric acid (HCl), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), water, sulphur compounds and organic acids. When processing sour crudes, severe corrosion can occur in both atmospheric and vacuum towers where metal temperatures exceed 232 °C, and in furnace tubing. Wet H2S will also cause cracks in steel. When processing high-nitrogen crudes, nitrogen oxides, which are corrosive to steel when cooled to low temperatures in the presence of water, form in the flue gases of furnaces.
Chemicals are used to control corrosion by hydrochloric acid produced in distillation units. Ammonia may be injected into the overhead stream prior to initial condensation, and/or an alkaline solution may be carefully injected into the hot crude oil feed. If sufficient wash water is not injected, deposits of ammonium chloride can form, causing serious corrosion.
Atmospheric and vacuum distillation are closed processes, and exposures are minimal. When sour (high sulphur) crudes are processed, there may be potential exposure to hydrogen sulphide in the preheat exchanger and furnace, tower flash zone and overhead system, vacuum furnace and tower, and bottoms exchanger. Crude oils and distillation products all contain high-boiling aromatic compounds, including carcinogenic PAHs. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of naphtha vapour can result in headaches, nausea and dizziness, and long-term exposure can result in loss of consciousness. Benzene is present in aromatic naphthas, and exposure must be limited. The dehexanizer overhead may contain large amounts of normal hexane, which can affect the nervous system. Hydrogen chloride may be present in the preheat exchanger, tower top zones and overheads. Waste water may contain water-soluble sulphides in high concentrations and other water-soluble compounds, such as ammonia, chlorides, phenol and mercaptan, depending upon the crude feedstock and the treatment chemicals.