Evaluation of a catalytic fixed bed reactor for sulphur trioxide decomposition
Stander, Barend Frederik
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The world energy supply and demand, together with limited available resources have resulted in the need to develop alternative energy sources to ensure sustainable and expanding economies. Hydrogen is being considered a viable option with particular application to fuel cells. The Hybrid Sulphur cycle has been identified as a process to produce clean hydrogen (carbon free process) and can have economic benefits when coupled to nuclear reactors (High Temperature Gas Reactor) or solar heaters for the supply of the required process energy. The sulphur trioxide decomposition reactor producing sulphur dioxide for the electrolytic cells in a closed loop system has been examined, but it is clear that development with respect to a more durable active catalyst in a reactor operating under severe conditions needs to be investigated. A suitable sulphur trioxide reactor needs to operate at a high temperature with efficient heating in view of the endothermic reaction, and has to consist of special materials of construction to handle the very corrosive reactants and products. This investigation was undertaken to address (1) the synthesis, characterisation, reactivity and stability of a suitable catalyst (2), determination the reaction rate of the chosen catalyst with a suitable micro reactor (3) construction and evaluation of a packed bed reactor for the required reaction, and (4) the development and validation of a reactor model using computational fluid dynamics with associated chemical reactions. A supported catalyst consisting of 0.5 wt% platinum and 0.5 wt% palladium on rutile (TiO2, titania) was prepared by the sintering of an anatase/rutile supported catalyst with the same noble metal composition, synthesized according to an incipient impregnation procedure using cylindrical porous pellets (±1.7 mm diameter and ±5 mm long). Characterization involving: surface area, porosity, metal composition, - dispersion, - particle size, support phase and sulphur content was carried out and it was found from reactivity determinations that the sintered catalyst, which was very different from the synthesized catalyst, had an acceptable activity and stability which was suitable for further evaluation. A micro pellet reactor was constructed and operated and consisted of a small number of pellets (five) placed apart from each other in a two-stage quartz reactor with sulphur trioxide generated from sulphuric acid in the first stage and the conversion of sulphur trioxide in the second stage, respectively. Attention was only confined to the second stage involving the conversion of sulphur trioxide with the supported catalyst. The overall reaction kinetics of the pellets involving momentum, heat and mass transfer and chemical reaction was evaluated and validated with constants obtained from literature and with an unknown reaction rate equation for which constants were obtained by regression. As result of the complexity of the flow, mass and heat transfer fields in the micro pellet reactor it was necessary to use a CFD model with chemical reactions which was accomplished with a commercial code COMSOL MultiPhysics® 4.3b. A reversible reaction rate equation was used and a least squares regression procedure was used to evaluate the activation energy and pre-exponential factor. The activation energy obtained for the first order forward reaction was higher than values obtained from literature for a first order reaction rate (irreversible reaction) for the platinum group metals on titania catalysts. Detailed analyses of the velocity, temperature and concentration profile revealed the importance of using a complex model for determination of the reaction parameters. A fixed bed reactor system consisting of a sulphuric acid vaporizer, a single reactor tube (1 m length, 25 mm OD) heated with a surrounding electrical furnace followed, by a series of condensers for the analysis of the products was constructed and operated. Three process variables were investigated, which included the inlet temperature, the weight hourly velocity and the residence time in order to assess the performance of the reactor and generate results for developing a model. The results obtained included the wall and reactor centreline temperature profiles together with average conversion. As a result of the complexity of the chemistry and the phases present containing the products from the reactor a detailed calculation was done using vapour/liquid equilibrium with the accompanying mass balance (Aspen-Plus®) to determine the distribution of sulphur trioxide, sulphur dioxide, oxygen and steam. A mass balance was successfully completed with analyses including SO2 with a GC, O2 with a paramagnetic cell analyser, acid/base titrations with sodium hydroxide, SO2 titrations with iodine and measurement of condensables (mass and volume). The results obtained showed that a steady state (constant conversion) was obtained after approximately six hours and that it was possible to obtain sulphur trioxide conversion approaching equilibrium conditions for bed lengths of 100 mm with very low weight hourly space velocities. A heterogeneous 2D model consisting of the relevant continuity, momentum, heat transfer and mass transfer and the reaction rate equation determined in this investigation was developed and solved with the use of the commercial code COMSOL MultiPhysics® 4.3b with an appropriate mesh structure. The geometry of the packed bed (geometry) was accomplished by generating a randomly packed bed with a commercial package DigiPac™. The model predicted results that agreed with experimental results with conversions up to 56%, obtained over the following ranges: weight hourly space velocity equal to 15 h-1, temperatures between 903 K and 1053 K and residence times between 0.1 and 0.07 seconds. The post-processing results were most useful for assessing the effect of the controlling mechanisms and associated parameters.
- Engineering