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Process design for the up-scale zeolite synthesis from South African coal fly ash
Du Plessis, Pieter Wynand
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In South Africa only 5% of the coal fly ash produced annually by power stations finds use. Due to the high quantities of Si and Al in the coal fly ash researchers have explored the opportunity to use the fly ash as a feedstock in zeolite synthesis. Two principal methods have been successfully employed on a micro scale namely the 2-step method and fusion assisted method. However, in order to scale-up these processes some fundamental process design changes are required. Fly ash contains various elements including highly toxic elements such as As, Pb and Hg. The fate of these elements during the synthesis processes is not known. Both these processes generate large quantities of liquid supernatant waste. Disposal of these wastes would be expensive and environmentally harmful, thus making these processes industrially unfeasible. The well known fusion assisted process, contains an energy intensive fusion step operating at 550 C. Construction and operation of a furnace to implement fusion would be too expensive on an industrial scale. The 2-step method has a time consuming pre-hydrothermal treatment step (aging step). In order to improve the feasibility of the 2-step process the processing time of the aging step needs to be reduced. In order to breach the scale gap between micro and pilot plant scale a principal reactor design has been suggested. However, to date, no consideration has been given to the safety and operational reliability of this design. A HAZOP study is required to prevent costly incidents from occurring during the operation of this reactor. The aim of this study formed part of the overall initiative to scale-up the synthesis of zeolites to pilot and ultimately do at industrial scale. The aim of this study specifically was to perform some principal process design activities in order to prepare these processes for scale-up. The objectives were to perform material balances on the two principals synthesis approaches in order to determine the distributional fate of elements. Secondly, to make critical process design changes and develop protocols whereby the supernatant waste resulting from these processes can be minimised. Thirdly, to replace the fusion step (used in the fusion assisted process) and the aging step (used in the 2-step process) with a short high intensity sonochemical treatment step. Lastly, to perform a HAZOP study on the principal bench scale reactor design, and make design changes based on the outcome of the study. Material balances illustrated that most of the elements originating from the coal fly ash (Fe, Mn, Mg, Ca, Ti, Ba, Ce, Co, Cu, Nb, Ni, Pb, Rb, Sr, Y and Zn) do not leach out into solution during either of the two synthesis approaches. This was due to the CaO content in the ash retarding the mobility of these elements. This meant that during the 2-step process these elements reported to the overall zeolite product but did not form part of the zeolite crystal structure. On the other hand, during the fusion assisted process these elements reported to the solid residue waste. The yield efficiency of the fusion assisted process was found to be poor with only 19.6% of the Si and 21.6% Al reporting to the zeolite A product. The 2-step process on the other hand incorporated 72.2% of the Si and 81.5% Al into the zeolite product. However, the 2-step process produced a mixed phase zeolite product while the fusion assisted process produced a pure phase zeolite A product. Therefore there is a trade-off between yield efficiency and product purity. It was found that the liquid supernatant waste produced during both the synthesis processes contained toxic elements such as As, Pb, Hg, Al and Nb. This highlighted the importance to minimise the liquid supernatant waste generated. The waste minimisation studies illustrated that the liquid supernatant waste can be recycled while still producing highly crystalline zeolite products, in both the synthesis approaches. During the 2-step process the supernatant waste was recycled as a source of NaOH. By recycling the waste it was found that 40% of the supernatant could be recycled. However, by making a minor process design change a protocol was developed whereby 100% of the supernatant waste could be recycled. Also, by recycling the liquid waste, zeolite analcime became the dominant phase due to the accumulation of Si in the waste. In the fusion assisted process, protocols were developed whereby the liquid supernatant waste was recycled as a source of water. It was found that 100% of the supernatant could be recycled without compromising the relative crystallinity and purity of the zeolite A product. Both the fusion step (used in the fusion assisted approach) and the 48 hr aging step (used in the 2-step process) could be replaced with 10 min of sonochemical treatment. It was found in both cases that the introduction of ultrasound, during the pre-hydrothermal stage, increased the rate of crystal formation during the hydrothermal treatment step. It was also found that by replacing the high temperature fusion step, in the fusion assisted process, the required hydrothermal treatment temperature could be reduced to 90 C. By introducing sonochemical treatment in these two synthesis approaches their synthesis time and energy demands could be reduced successfully. A HAZOP study on the principal bench scale reactor design enabled design changes to be made preventing future loss during operation. A final optimised reactor design was proposed based on the outcome of the HAZOP study. This study effectively prepared both zeolite synthesis approaches for up-scale operation. Scale-up of this process will reduce disposal of coal fly ash offering relief to the financial and environmental strain caused to the country.
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