Helium recovery and purification by dual reflux pressure swing adsorption

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Global demand for helium has risen over the past few decades driven by a vast range of applications based on its unique properties. Helium is often produced industrially from the vent streams of nitrogen rejection units (NRU) in liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, where it accumulates because of its low boiling point. Further deep cryogenic processing stages are then required to upgrade its concentration to saleable levels. We report here an experimental and simulation-based investigation of an alternative, non-cryogenic process based on dual reflux pressure swing adsorption (DR PSA) cycles to recover and purify helium from model binaries including a 1 mol% He + 99 mol% N2 mixture representative of NRU vent streams. Binderfree zeolite 13X was used as the adsorbent in an experimental campaign employing a laboratory-scale DR PSA apparatus. The experimental runs validated a non-isothermal numerical model with an average deviation of 1 mol% between the simulated and experimental product compositions. The single-stage DR PSA experiments produced helium product streams with purities ranging from (30 to 99) mol% from feeds with concentrations ranging from (1 to 50) mol% He. Two DR PSA stages were required to upgrade mixtures containing 1 mol% He to a target product purity of > 99 mol%. A cascade arrangement of two DR PSA systems with a waste recycle enabled a 99.999 mol% He purity product at 95 % recovery, which is competitive with conventional cryogenic systems. This cascade DR PSA process used either two or three compressors depending on the feed gas pressure, with associated duty costs of 1.5 MJ∙(mol He produced)–1. This is lower than several membrane processes described in the literature and could be more cost-effective for smaller-scale applications than cryogenic processes with similar levels of separation performance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number120603
JournalSeparation and Purification Technology
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2022


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