Chemical reactor

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In chemical engineering, chemical reactors are vessels designed to contain chemical reactions. Also referred to as a reaction vessel, the reactants contained are substances that change form after a chemical reaction.[1] One example is a pressure reactor. The design of a chemical reactor deals with multiple aspects of chemical engineering. Chemical engineers design reactors to maximize net present value for the given reaction. Designers ensure that the reaction proceeds with the highest efficiency towards the desired output product, producing the highest yield of product while requiring the least amount of money to purchase and operate. Normal operating expenses include energy input, energy removal, raw material costs, labor, etc. Energy changes can come in the form of heating or cooling, pumping to increase pressure, frictional pressure loss (such as pressure drop across a 90° elbow or an orifice plate) or agitation.

Chemical reaction engineering is the branch of chemical engineering which deals with chemical reactors and their design, especially by application of chemical kinetics to industrial systems.


Cut-away view of a stirred-tank chemical reactor with a cooling jacket
Chemical reactor with half coils wrapped around it

There are a couple of main basic vessel types:

Both types can be used as continuous reactors or batch reactors, and either may accommodate one or more solids (reagents, catalyst, or inert materials), but the reagents and products are typically fluids. Most commonly, reactors are run at steady-state, but can also be operated in a transient state. When a reactor is first brought into operation (after maintenance or inoperation) it would be considered to be in a transient state, where key process variables change with time.

There are three main basic models used to estimate the most important process variables of different chemical reactors:

Furthermore, catalytic reactors require separate treatment, whether they are batch, CST, or PF reactors, as the many assumptions of the simpler models are not valid.

Key process variables include

  • Residence time (τ, lower case Greek tau)
  • Volume (V)
  • Temperature (T)
  • Pressure (P)
  • Concentrations of chemical species (C1, C2, C3, ... Cn)
  • Heat transfer coefficients (h, U)
  • Chemical reactor manufacturer [2](h, U)

A chemical reactor, typically tubular reactor, could be a packed bed. Typical packed bed reactors consist of a chamber, such as a tube or channel that contains catalyst particles or pellets, and a liquid that flows through the catalyst.[3] A chemical reactor may also be a fluidized bed; see Fluidized bed reactor.

Chemical reactions occurring in a reactor may be exothermic, meaning giving off heat, or endothermic, meaning absorbing heat. A chemical reactor vessel may have a cooling or heating jacket or cooling or heating coils (tubes) wrapped around the outside of its vessel wall to cool down or heat up the contents.


Batch reactor[edit]

The simplest type of reactor is a batch reactor. Materials are charged in a batch reactor, and the reaction proceeds with time. A batch reactor does not reach a steady state, and control of temperature, pressure and volume is necessary. Thus, a batch reactor has ports for sensors and material input and output. Batch reactors are used in small-scale production and reactions with biological materials, such as in brewing, pulping and production of enzymes.

CSTR (Continuous Stirred-Tank Reactor)[edit]

Checking condition inside the case of a continuous stirred tank reactor (CSTR). Note the impeller (or agitator) blades on the shaft for mixing. Also note the baffle at the bottom of the image which also helps in mixing.

In a CSTR, one or more fluid reagents are introduced into a tank reactor (typically) equipped with an impeller while the reactor effluent is removed. The impeller stirs the reagents to ensure proper mixing. Simply dividing the volume of the tank by the average volumetric flow rate through the tank gives the space time, or the average amount of time a discrete quantity of reagent spends inside the tank. Using chemical kinetics, the reaction's expected percent completion can be calculated. Some important aspects of the CSTR:

  • At steady-state, the mass flow rate in must equal the mass flow rate out, otherwise the tank will overflow or go empty (transient state). While the reactor is in a transient state the model equation must be derived from the differential mass and energy balances.
  • The reaction proceeds at the reaction rate associated with the final (output) concentration, since the concentration is assumed to be homogenous throughout the reactor.
  • Often, it is economically beneficial to operate several CSTRs in series. This allows, for example, the first CSTR to operate at a higher reagent concentration and therefore a higher reaction rate. In these cases, the sizes of the reactors may be varied in order to minimize the total capital investment required to implement the process.
  • It can be demonstrated that an infinite number of infinitely small CSTRs operating in series would be equivalent to a PFR.

The behavior of a CSTR is often approximated or modeled by that of a Continuous Ideally Stirred-Tank Reactor (CISTR). All calculations performed with CISTRs assume perfect mixing. If the residence time is 5-10 times the mixing time, this approximation is considered valid for engineering purposes. The CISTR model is often used to simplify engineering calculations and can be used to describe research reactors. In practice it can only be approached, particularly in industrial size reactors in which the mixing time may be very large.

A loop reactor is a hybrid type of catalytic reactor that physically resembles a tubular reactor, but operates like a CSTR. The reaction mixture is circulated in a loop of tube, surrounded by a jacket for cooling or heating, and there is a continuous flow of starting material in and product out.

PFR (Plug Flow Reactor)[edit]

Simple diagram illustrating plug flow reactor model

In a PFR, sometimes called continuous tubular reactor (CTR),[4] one or more fluid reagents are pumped through a pipe or tube. The chemical reaction proceeds as the reagents travel through the PFR. In this type of reactor, the changing reaction rate creates a gradient with respect to distance traversed; at the inlet to the PFR the rate is very high, but as the concentrations of the reagents decrease and the concentration of the product(s) increases the reaction rate slows. Some important aspects of the PFR:

  • All calculations performed with PFRs assume no upstream or downstream mixing, as implied by the term "plug flow".
  • Reagents may be introduced into the PFR at locations in the reactor other than the inlet. In this way, a higher efficiency may be obtained, or the size and cost of the PFR may be reduced.
  • A PFR typically has a higher efficiency than a CSTR of the same volume. That is, given the same space-time (or residence time), a reaction will typically proceed to a higher percentage completion in a PFR than in a CSTR. This is not always true for reversible reactions.

For most chemical reactions of industrial interest, it is impossible for the reaction to proceed to 100% completion. The rate of reaction decreases as the reactants are consumed until the point where the system reaches dynamic equilibrium (no net reaction, or change in chemical species occurs). The equilibrium point for most systems is less than 100% complete. For this reason a separation process, such as distillation, often follows a chemical reactor in order to separate any remaining reagents or byproducts from the desired product. These reagents may sometimes be reused at the beginning of the process, such as in the Haber process. In some cases, very large reactors would be necessary to approach equilibrium, and chemical engineers may choose to separate the partially reacted mixture and recycle the leftover reactants.

Continuous oscillatory baffled reactor (COBR) is a tubular plug flow reactor. The mixing in COBR is achieved by the combination of fluid oscillation and orifice baffles, allowing plug flow to be achieved under laminar flow conditions with the net flow Reynolds number just about 100.

Semi-batch reactor[edit]

A semi-batch reactor is operated with both continuous and batch inputs and outputs. A fermenter, for example, is loaded with a batch of medium and microbes which constantly produces carbon dioxide that must be removed continuously. Analogously, driving a reaction of gas with a liquid is usually difficult, since the gas bubbles off. Therefore, a continuous feed of gas is injected into the batch of a liquid. One chemical reactant is charged to the vessel and a second chemical is added slowly (for instance, to prevent side reactions).

Catalytic reactor[edit]

Although catalytic reactors are often implemented as plug flow reactors, their analysis requires more complicated treatment. The rate of a catalytic reaction is proportional to the amount of catalyst the reagents contact, as well as the concentration of the reactants. With a solid phase catalyst and fluid phase reagents, this is proportional to the exposed area, efficiency of diffusion of reagents in and products out, and efficacy of mixing. Perfect mixing usually cannot be assumed. Furthermore, a catalytic reaction pathway often occurs in multiple steps with intermediates that are chemically bound to the catalyst; and as the chemical binding to the catalyst is also a chemical reaction, it may affect the kinetics. Catalytic reactions often display the so-called falsified kinetics, i.e. the apparent kinetics differ from elementary chemical kinetics due to physical transport effects.

The behavior of the catalyst is also a consideration. Particularly in high-temperature petrochemical processes, catalysts are deactivated by sintering, coking, and similar processes.

A common example of a catalytic reactor is the catalytic converter following an engine. However, most petrochemical reactors are catalytic, and are responsible for most of industrial chemical production in the world, with extremely high-volume examples such as sulfuric acid, ammonia, reformate/BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) and alkylate gasoline blending stock.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Energy Efficient Processes for Polymers, written by Rolund Kunkel


  1. ^ "Sanitary Dip Tubes - High Purity Systems, Inc.". High Purity Systems, Inc. Retrieved 2016-10-19. 
  2. ^ qin, su. [ "Chemical reactor manufacturer"] Check |url= value (help). JCT Machinery. 
  3. ^ "What Is a Packed Bed Reactor?". COMSOL Multiphysics©. Retrieved 2016-10-19. 
  4. ^ "Plug Flow Reactor|Vapourtec Ltd". Vapourtec. Retrieved 2016-10-19.