Distillation Columns

Distillation Columns

Distillation is an age-old technique employed to separate components based on differences in their boiling points. In the realm of biodiesel production, distillation columns play a pivotal role in purifying biodiesel and separating it from other by-products and impurities.

Role of Distillation Columns in Biodiesel Production

  • Biodiesel Purification: After transesterification, the resulting mixture contains biodiesel, unreacted alcohol, glycerol, catalyst residues, and other impurities. A distillation column can help purify the biodiesel by removing these undesired components.
  • Glycerol Recovery: Glycerol, a by-product of transesterification, can be separated and purified using distillation, leading to additional revenue streams.
  • Methanol Recovery: Excess methanol used in the transesterification process can be recovered through distillation and recycled, improving the process’s overall efficiency and reducing costs.

Basic Components of a Distillation Column

  • Reboiler: Provides the necessary heat to produce vapor from the liquid mixture, which ascends through the column.
  • Packing/Towers: This can either be structured packing or trays that provide surface area for the vapor-liquid interaction. This facilitates the separation of components based on their boiling points.
  • Condenser: Cools and condenses the overhead vapor from the column, separating the distillate from the vapor phase.
  • Feed Input: The location where the mixture (feed) is introduced into the column.
  • Overhead and Bottom Product Outlets: These are points from where separated components are collected. The component with the lower boiling point (often methanol in biodiesel processes) exits at the top, while the higher boiling components (like biodiesel) are collected at the bottom.

Operational Principles

  • Vapor-Liquid Equilibrium: Distillation relies on the differences in vapor pressure and boiling points of the components in the mixture. As the reboiler heats the mixture, the component with the lowest boiling point vaporizes first and rises through the column.
  • Component Separation: As the vapor rises, it interacts with descending liquid on the packing/trays. This leads to a repeated condensation and vaporization process, enriching the vapor in the lower boiling point component and the liquid in the higher boiling point component.

Considerations in Biodiesel Production

  • Feed Composition: The exact makeup of the feed can influence the operation and efficiency of the distillation column.
  • Energy Consumption: Distillation is energy-intensive. Efforts to improve heat integration and recovery can significantly reduce operational costs.
  • Column Design: Depending on the desired purity levels and the complexity of the mixture, the distillation column design, including the choice of packing/trays, height, diameter, and operating conditions, needs careful consideration.
  • Maintenance: Over time, residues can build up within the column, affecting its efficiency. Regular maintenance and cleaning schedules are crucial.


Distillation columns are essential in refining biodiesel to the desired purity levels. They ensure that the final product is free from impurities and meets industry standards. Proper design, operation, and maintenance of these columns are paramount for the economic and efficient production of biodiesel.