Knowledge of the flows and the accumulation of material in a unit operation are fundamental to the understanding and analysis of process and equipment performance. Flows are the primary way of affecting the process. Root cause analysis requires sensitive and repeatable flow measurements. I have seen costly expert systems fail to deliver benefits because of missing or inaccurate flows (“Drowning in Data, Starving for Information – 1“).
The process gains of the more important process variables (e.g. composition, pH, and temperature) are best quantified and visualized in a plot versus a ratio of flows (e.g. coolant/feed, reactant A/reactant B, reagent/feed, reflux/feed, and steam/feed). If you are still into differential equations, you can checkout my Advanced Application Note 4 to see how process gains are dependent upon the ratios of flows.
The importance of flow ratios for affecting the process is seen in the prevalence of flow ratio control as detailed in my entries “What Have I Learned? – Flow Ratio Control” on this website.
The amount of time material spends in a unit operation is critical for crystallization and reaction. For continuous operation of well mixed volumes, the amount of time is the residence that is the fluid volume divided by the total throughput flow. Conversion is maximized by increasing volume or decreasing feed flows. For batch processes, the amount of time is the cycle time. Conversion is maximized by charging the feeds as fast as possible (increasing feed flows), to leave more of the batch cycle time for conversion.
In the direct material balance control scheme where the distillate flow is manipulated for overhead receiver level control, the sensitivity of the temperature and hence the composition control requires an exceptionally sensitive level measurement, low noise, and a high controller gain. Changes in distillate flow do not affect the column until there is a corresponding change in the reflux flow that maintains the material balance.
Then of course, there is the need to minimize the amount of storage of materials in the process. Ideally, storage tanks would be almost empty with just enough raw materials and intermediates to continually meet the flow demand of downstream operations and just enough products to continually meet the flow demand of customers.
For more information on how advances in flow and level measurements can improve material balance control, residence time control, inventory control, and process analysis and modeling, checkout “Advances in Flow and Level Measurements Enhance Process Knowledge, Control“