Solvent Recovery at Pharmaceutical and Chemical Production Plants

The recovery and reuse of solvents used in the production processes at pharmaceutical, chemical, petrochemical, and medical device manufacturing facilities are an important consideration when evaluating a plant’s overall efficiency and profitability. Recovery and reuse of organic solvents offers a two-fold benefit: waste elimination costs and reduced chemical costs. Distillation is one of the most common methods used in a solvent recovery application.

Secondary to the recovery of solvents with distillation technology is the concentration/recovery of residual pharmaceutical product from the column discharge stream. Evaporation technology following the column is the standard method to facilitate higher recovery rates of the pharmaceutical product.

Simple Solvent Recovery

Solvent Recovery TableThe most basic design would typically have a single organic solvent in a water matrix with no contaminants present. Common chemicals in a solvent recovery process are acetone, isopropanol, methanol, ethanol, and hexane. A solvent recovery column has two sections of trays or packing. For example, with a water matrix and a chemical with a boiling point lower than water, the bottom section of the column (stripping section) would initially separate the water matrix and the organic chemical; the top section (rectification section) is used to concentrate the organic chemical. This binary system can typically be designed in common software simulation packages such as CHEMCAD and HYSYS.

Multicomponent Solvent Recovery

The next level system will have more than one organic chemical to recover. In this design, it is typical to recover the organic chemicals in one stream and water in the other. A second column is then used to separate the two organic solvents. Most of the common organic solvents have well-documented vapor/liquid equilibrium data required to properly simulate the separation process. Any small amount of contaminant should be cause for pilot testing of the design to ensure the separation requirements.

Additional Difficulties in Solvent Recovery Applications

Solvent Recovery for Pharmaceutical IndustryMany plants have several discrete production lines operating with different organic chemicals. It is possible to design a robust solvent recovery system that can operate in different configurations to facilitate the recovery of solvents from the various production lines. In one such case, a pharmaceutical production plant had varying streams of solvents in a matrix of water. The solvents had a range of boiling points that were above the BP of water from Line 1 and below the boiling point of water from Line 2. Adding to the complexity was the multicomponent nature of the streams from both lines. A third layer of complexity was the miscibility of some streams when rectified or concentrated and the immiscibility of other streams.

The design of the distillation system followed a standard path of initial simulation work, which would provide operating conditions within the column; liquid/vapor ratios, reflux ratios, utility requirements, etc. A test protocol for the different streams was then required due to the lack of empirical data to predict a distillation separation process with many components present. The column configuration included feed points at the top, middle, and bottom of the column. To account for the “immiscibility factor” a 3-section decanter design was used. In the presence of immiscible components, the three sections guaranteed separation of a stream with both a higher and lower specific gravity as compared to water. In the miscible component case, the decanter served as condensate tank for the overhead stream.

Final operating parameters were determined from the pilot test and a full-scale plant was built from the required empirical data.


Experienced distillation engineers draw upon their experiences in the design of each new system. The separation of solvents and water is only one half of the design. Since distillation is an energy-intensive process, the overall system design needs to take energy usage into great consideration. Using cascading pressure in a multi-effect distillation system can be used in some applications. Mechanical vapor recompression (MVR) can also be used to promote a more efficient system design. The overall economy of the process should be compared when evaluating designs from multiple suppliers of distillation equipment.

A Chemical Industry Case Study

The team at Thermal Kinetics handles projects across a wide range of industries; from metal processing and pharmaceutical to food processing and renewable fuels. To illustrate Thermal Kinetics’ capabilities for the chemical industry, we’ve outlined a relevant case study below.

GS Caltex Acid Recovery Unit

In 2015, GS Caltex, which is jointly owned by GS Holding and Chevron, contacted Thermal Kinetics regarding their evaporation system needs. They required a highly efficient sulfuric-acid recovery system, which would be used in their first-ever bio-butanol plant.

We designed a system that would re-concentrate a 15%-by-weight sulfuric-acid feedstock containing residual sugars. The separation process included sophisticated mechanical and control features that would minimize the effect of foaming. The 75% H2SO4 product being delivered from the evaporator would then be reintroduced into a biomass process that hydrolyzes cellulose.

The acid concentration process centered on the use of a falling-film, single-effect evaporator. Although the H2SO4 and water separation process is straightforward and simple, the system design was complicated by the fact that a range of materials was needed in order to reliably withstand the corrosiveness of the acid at high vacuum and elevated temperatures. Glass-lined vessels, PTFE-lined pipe and pumps, and graphite heat exchangers were all used in the design.

Thermal Kinetics was able to deliver the final system within the client’s requested time frame, with a modular assembly being delivered over a period of 45 weeks.

The main module was export boxed, and auxiliary subassemblies and components were shipped in two standard 40-foot sea containers.

Comprehensive reassembly plans were provided so that our customer could easily erect the system on-site. Start-up assistance will be provided once the customer is ready.

Thermal Kinetics is proud to provide these types of services to our clients and works closely with client teams to create top-quality systems tailored for specific applications.

To learn more about our previous projects or discuss how we can help with your evaporator system needs, contact us today. We’re on hand to answer any questions you may have.

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