Main content area

Helium Recovery through Inorganic Membranes Incorporated with a Nitrogen Rejection Unit

Scholes, Colin A.
Industrial & engineering chemistry process design and development 2018 v.57 no.10 pp. 3792-3799
helium, natural gas, nitrogen, process design, sieving, supply balance, temperature, zeolites
Helium recovery and purification from a natural gas process is increasingly being investigated globally to address rising market demand, as traditional helium sources become depleted. Here, process simulations of two types of inorganic membranes were undertaken in Aspen HYSYS to investigate the possibility of recovering and purifying helium from the Nitrogen Rejection Unit (NRU) offgas close to the NRU’s operating temperature. The two membranes were a cobalt-silica membrane that has He/N₂ selectivity through molecular sieving and a zeolite membrane that has N₂/He selectivity at low temperatures, because of surface diffusion. Both membranes were able to achieve the desired He recovery and purification through a three-membrane-stage process, and for a feed of 4% He, the cobalt-silica membrane could achieve the same separation performance through a two-membrane-stage process above 340 K, because of increasing selectivity with temperature. In contrast, the zeolite membrane could not operate above 220 K, because of the loss of the surface diffusion mechanism. The difference in permeance of the two membranes significantly affected the membrane area, with the cobalt-silica membrane requiring three orders of magnitude more area than the zeolite membrane to recover and purify the same amount of helium. However, the zeolite membrane’s selectivity for N₂ meant that the vast majority of the NRU offgas passed through the membrane into the permeate streams. Hence, to ensure a high helium recovery, the permeate streams from the second and third membrane stages must be recycled, resulting in permeate gas throughputs that are orders of magnitude higher than the cobalt-silica membrane process. This placed significant recompression duty on the zeolite membrane process, compared to the cobalt-silica process, and, as such, the zeolite membrane’s power duty for helium separation was at least five times greater than that of the cobalt-silica membrane. Hence, there is a tradeoff between the two inorganic membranes for helium recovery and purification, based on required membrane area and power demand.