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Process insight: Selecting the best solvent for gas sweetening

There are several solvents that can be used in removing acid gases such as carbon
dioxide and hydrogen sulphide from sour gas streams. These solvents are amine
based. The possible solvents can range from primary to tertiary amines or a mixture of
any of these. The commonly used amines are methanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine
(DEA), and methyldiethanol amine (MDEA). Other amines that can be used are
diglycolamine (DGA), diisoproranol amine (DIPA), and triethanol amine (TEA).
Mixtures of any of these amines can also be used to optimize acid gas recovery.

Factors that affect the selection of the right type of amine solvent are
temperature, pressure, sour gas composition of the stream, purity requirements,
and energy requirements.

Different possible solvents for amine sweetening

Primary amines
Primary amines remove both carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide from the sour gas
stream. It can lower the composition of both hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide to
minute levels even at low pressures. However, it is prone to degradation during its
usage. A reclaimer is needed to remove these degraded products from the solvent
stream. Diglycolamine is another primary amine that removes carbon dioxide,
hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans from the sour gas stream. This also requires
reclaiming to remove degraded products.

Secondary amines
Secondary amines, just like primary amines, remove carbon dioxide and hydrogen
sulphide. However, this needs higher operating pressure. Because of this recovery is
easier since it can be flashed to atmosphere to remove the solute from the amine.
Examples of secondary amines are diethanolamine and diisopropanol amine.

Tertiary amines
The special characteristic of tertiary amines is its selectivity. Tertiary amines are
selective in absorbing hydrogen sulphide as compared to carbon dioxide. This amine
is especially used for high hydrogen sulphide to carbon dioxide ratio. Due to its
selectivity, separation of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide can be done. If the
hydrogen sulphide is to be recovered from the solvent, one can produce a stream rich
in hydrogen sulphide and send this acid gas to a sulphur recovery unit. MDEA is not
prone to degradation and therefore it doesn’t need a reclaimer as compared to
secondary and primary amines.

Mixed solvents
Mixed solvents refer to different amines mixed as one. Mixing different kinds of
amines will produce a better absorbent, better in such a way that it will have
combined features of the individual amines. For example, primary and secondary
amines can be mixed with tertiary amines to increase the rate of carbon dioxide
absorption. Different kinds of solvents when mixed in the right manner can
selectively absorb mercaptans. SULFINOL is a licensed solvent of shell. When used
for amine sweetening, major effects are to increase mercaptan removal, lower energy
requirement for stripping, and higher selectivity for hydrogen sulphide.
Hint for selection of MDEA as solvent
The main advantage of using a tertiary solvent is because it is selective. It
preferentially absorbs hydrogen sulphide and thus produces a carbon dioxide rich
stream. The benefit is that you can produce an acid gas consisting mainly of hydrogen
sulphide. This in turn can be sent to the sulphur recovery system.