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Crystallization (engineering aspects)

In chemical engineering crystallization occurs in a crystallizer. Crystallization is a unit operation through which a chemical compound, dissolved in a given solvent, precipitates under certain conditions to allow successive separation between the phases.

Crystallization is therefore an aspect of precipitation, obtained through a variation of the solubility conditions of the solute in the solvent, as compared to precipitation due to chemical reaction.

Additional recommended knowledge



Crystallization is one of the pristine unit processes. It may be assumed that our ancestors used sodium chloride found in crevices of the surface rocks after drying caused by solar radiation: this process is still in use in modern solar ponds.

Other crystallization processes, for exampuction, followed by sodium chloride), or in pigment manufacturing, were used in ancient times. These substances were sometimes produced by crystallizing the solutes of some more or less natural brine.

In more recent times, the fast expansion of the chemical industry has required a thorough study of the dynamics of crystallization, and this unit operation is now used in many industrial manufacturing areas: table salt, sugar, sodium sulfate, urea, just to name a few, are produced by crystallization from solutions.

Crystallizer technology has progressed alongside with the new processes. Once simple tanks in which, through cooling, evaporation or maybe through pH variation a crystal was obtained, nowadays continuous machines ensure a remarkable consistency in the product characteristics. Among the first models of modern crystallizers were probably the calandria type, being today the standard crystallizer for sucrose, and the Oslo, named after the Norwegian capital, since it was developed to produce salt in a climate not particularly fit for solar ponds, salt being widely used in Norway in stockfish production. The Oslo type was probably the first crystallizer designed specifically for the control of crystal growth.

Crystallization dynamics

As mentioned above, a crystal is formed following a well-defined pattern, or structure, dictated by forces acting at the molecular level. As a consequence, during its formation process the crystal is in an environment where the solute concentration reaches a certain critical value, before changing status. Solid formation, impossibile below the solubility threshold at the given temperature and pressure conditions, may then take place at a concentration higher than the theoretical solubility level. The difference between the actual value of the solute concentration at the crystallization limit and the theoretical (static) solubility threshold is called supersaturation and is a fundamental factor in crystallization dynamics. Supersaturation is the driving force for both the initial nucleation step and the following crystal growth, both of which could not occur in saturated or undersaturated conditions.


Main article: Nucleation

Nucleation is the initiation of a phase change in a small region, such as the formation of a solid crystal from a liquid solution. It is a consequence of rapid local fluctuations on a molecular scale in a homogeneous phase that is in a state of metastable equilibrium. Total nucleation is the sum effect of two categories of nucleation - primary and secondary.

Primary Nucleation

Primary nucleation is the initial formation of a crystal where there are no other crystals present or where, if there are crystals present in the system, they do not have any influence on the process. This can occur in two conditions. The first is homogeneous nucleation, which is nucleation that is not influenced in any way by solids. These solids include the walls of the crystallizer vessel and particles of any foreign substance. The second category, then, is heterogeneous nucleation. This occurs when solid particles of foreign substances cause an increase in the rate of nucleation that would otherwise not be seen without the existence of these foreign particles. Homogeneous nucleation rarely occurs in practice due to the high energy necessary to begin nucleation without a solid surface to catalyze the nucleation.

Primary nucleation (both homogeneous and heterogeneous) has been modeled with the following:[1]

B=\dfrac{dN}{dt} = k_n(c-c^*)^n

  • B is the number of nuclei formed per unit volume per unit time.
  • N is the number of nuclei per unit volume.
  • kn is a rate constant.
  • c is the instantaneous solute concentration.
  • c* is the solute concentration at saturation.
  • (c-c*) is also known as supersaturation.
  • n is an empirical exponent that can be as large as 10, but generally ranges between 3 and 4.

Secondary Nucleation

Secondary nucleation is the formation of nuclei attributable to the influence of the existing macroscopic crystals in the magma. [2] The first type of known secondary crystallization is attributable to fluid shear, the other due to collisions between already existing crystals with either a solid surface of the crystallizer or with other crystals themselves. Fluid shear nucleation occurs when liquid travels across a crystal at a high speed, sweeping away nuclei that would otherwise be incorporated into a crystal, causing the swept-away nuclei to become new crystals. Contact nucleation has been found to be the most effective and common method for nucleation. The benefits include the following [2]

  • Low kinetic order and rate-proportional to supersaturation, allowing easy control without unstable operation.
  • Occurs at low supersaturation, where growth rate is optimum for good quality.
  • Low necessary energy at which crystals strike avoids the breaking of existing crystals into new crystals.
  • The quantitatve fundamentals have already been isolated and are being incorporated into practice.

The following model, although somewhat simplified, is often used to model secondary nucleation:[1]

B=\dfrac{dN}{dt} = k_1M_T^j(c-c^*)^b

  • k1 is a rate constant.
  • MT is the suspension density.
  • j is an empirical exponent that can range up to 1.5, but is generally 1.
  • b is an empircal exponent that can range up to 5, but is generally 2.  

Crystal Growth

Once the first small crystal, the nucleus, forms it acts as a convergence point (if unstable due to supersaturation) for molecules of solute touching - or adjacent to - the crystal so that it increases its own dimension in successive layers. The pattern of growth resembles the rings of an onion, as shown in the picture, where each colour indicates the same mass of solute; this mass creates increasingly thin layers due to the increasing surface area of the growing crystal. The supersaturated solute mass the original nucleus may capture in a time unit is called the growth rate expressed in kg/(m2*h), and is a constant specific to the process. Growth rate is influenced by several physical factors, such as surface tension of solution, pressure, temperature, relative crystal velocity in the solution, Reynolds number, and so forth.

The main values to control are therefore:

  • Supersaturation value, as an index of the quantity of solute available for the growth of the crystal;
  • Total crystal surface in unit fluid mass, as an index of the capability of the solute to fix onto the crystal;
  • Retention time, as an index of the probability of a molecule of solute to come into contact with an existing crystal;
  • Flow pattern, again as an index of the probability of a molecule of solute to come into contact with an existing crystal (higher in laminar flow, lower in turbulent flow, but the reverse applies to the probability of contact).

The first value is a consequence of the physical characteristics of the solution, while the others define a difference between a well- and poorly designed crystallizer.

Crystal Size Distribution

The appearance and size range of a crystalline product is extremely important in crystallization. If further processing of the crystals is desired, large crystals with uniform size are important for washing, filtering, transportation, and storage. The importance lies in the fact that large crystals are easier to filter out of a solution than small crystals. Also, larger crystals have a smaller surface area to volume ratio, leading to a higher purity. This higher purity is due to less retention of mother liquor which contains impurities, and a smaller loss of yield when the crystals are washed to remove the mother liquor. The theoretical crystal size distribution can be estimated as a function of operating conditions with a fairly complicated mathematical process called population balance theory.

Main crystallization processes

The main factors influencing solubility are, as we saw above:

  • Concentration
  • Temperature

So we may identify two main families of crystallization processes:

  • Cooling crystallization
  • Evaporative crystallization

This division is not really clear-cut, since hybrid systems exist, where cooling is performed through evaporation, thus obtaining at the same time a concentration of the solution.

A crystallization process often referred to in chemical engineering is the Fractional crystallization. This is not a different process, rather a special application of one (or both) of the above.

Cooling crystallization


Most chemical compounds, dissolved in most solvents, show the so-called direct solubility that is, the solubility threshold increases with temperature.   So, whenever the conditions are favorable, crystal formation results from simply cooling the solution. Here cooling is a relative term: austenite crystals in a steel form well above 1000 °C. An example of this crystallization process is the production of Glauber's salt, a crystalline form of sodium sulfate. In the picture, where equilibrium temperature is on the x-axis and equilibrium concentration (as mass percent of solute in saturated solution) in y-axis, it is clear that sulfate solubility quickly decreases below 32.5 °C. Assuming a saturated solution at 30 °C, by cooling it to 0 °C (note that this is possible thanks to the freezing-point depression), the precipitation of a mass of sulfate occurs corresponding to the change in solubility from 29% (equilibrium value at 30°C) to approximately 4.5% (at 0°C) - actually a larger crystal mass is precipitated, since sulfate entrains hydration water, and this has the side effect of increasing the final concentration.

There are of course limitation in the use of cooling crystallization:

  • Many solutes precipitate in hydrate form at low temperatures: in the previous example this is acceptable, and even useful, but it may be detrimental when, for example, the mass of water of hydration to reach a stable hydrate crystallization form is more than the available water: a single block of hydrate solute will be formed - this occurs in the case of calcium chloride);
  • Maximum supersaturation will take place in the coldest points. These may be the heat exchanger tubes which are sensitive to scaling, and heat exchange may be greatly reduced or discontinued;
  • A decrease in temperature usually implies an increase of the viscosity of a solution. Too high a viscosity may give hydraulic problems, and the laminar flow thus created may affect the crystallization dynamics.
  • It is of course not applicable to compounds having reverse solubility, a term to indicate that solubility increases with temperature decrease (an example occurs with sodium sulfate where solubility is reversed above 32.5 °C).

Cooling crystallizers

The simplest cooling crystallizers are tanks provided with a mixer for internal circulation, where temperature decrease is obtained by heat exchange with an intermediate fluid circulating in a jacket. These simple machines are used in batch processes, as in processing of pharmaceuticals and are prone to scaling. Batch processes normally provide a relatively variable quality of product along the batch.

The Swenson-Walker crystallizer is a model, specifically conceived by Swenson Co. around 1920, having a semicylindric horizontal hollow trough in which a hollow screw conveyor or some hollow discs, in which a refrigerating fluid is circulated, plunge during rotation on a longitudinal axis. The refrigerating fluid is sometimes also circulated in a jacket around the trough. Crystals precipitate on the cold surfaces of the screw/discs, from which they are removed by scrapers and settle on the bottom of the trough. The screw, if provided, pushes the slurry towards a discharge port.

A common practice is to cool the solutions by flash evaporation: when a liquid at a given T0 temperature is transferred in a chamber at a pressure P1 such that the liquid saturation temperature T1 at P1 is lower than T0, the liquid will release heat according to the temperature difference and a quantity of solvent, whose total latent heat of vaporization equals the difference in enthalpy. In simple words, the liquid is cooled by evaporating a part of it.

Evaporative crystallization

Another option is to obtain, at an approximately constant temperature, the precipitation of the crystals by increasing the solute concentration above the solubility threshold. To obtain this, the solute/solvent mass ratio is increased using the technique of evaporation. This process is of course insensitive to change in temperature (as long as hydration state remains unchanged).

All considerations on control of crystallization parameters are the same as for the cooling models.

Evaporative crystallizers

Most industrial crystallizers are of the evaporative type, such as the very large sodium chloride and sucrose units, whose production accounts for more than 50% of the total world production of crystals. The most common type is the forced circulation (FC) model (see evaporator). A pumping device (a pump or an axial flow mixer keeps the crystal slurry in homogeneous suspension throughout the tank, including the exchange surfaces; by controlling pump flow, control of the contact time of the crystal mass with the supersaturated solution is achieved, together with reasonable velocities at the exchange surfaces. The Oslo, mentioned above, is a refining of the evaporative forced circulation crystallizer, now equipped with a large crystals settling zone to increase the retention time (usually low in the FC) and to roughly separate heavy slurry zones from clear liquid.

The DTB Crystallizer

    Whichever the form of the crystallizer, to achieve an effective process control it is important to control the retention time and the crystal mass, to obtain the optimum conditions in term of crystal specific surface and the fastest possible growth. This is achieved by a separation - to put it simply - of the crystals from the liquid mass, in order to manage the two flows in a different way. The practical way is to perform a gravity settling to be able to extract (and possibly recycle separately) the (almost) clear liquid, while managing the mass flow around the crystallizer to obtain a precise slurry density elsewhere. A typical example is the DTB (Draft Tube and Baffle) crystallizer, an idea of Richard Chisum Bennett (a Swenson engineer and later President of Swenson) at the end of the 1950s. The DTB crystallizer (see images) has an internal circulator, typically an axial flow mixer - yellow - pushing upwards in a draft tube while outside the crystallizer there is a settling area in an annulus; in it the exhaust solution moves upwards at a very low velocity, so that large crystals settle - and return to the main circulation - while only the fines, below a given grain size are extracted and eventually destroyed by increasing or decreasing temperature, thus creating additional supersaturation. A quasi-perfect control of all parameters is achieved. This crystallizer, and the derivate models (Krystal, CSC, etc.) could be the ultimate solution if not for a major limitation in the evaporative capacity, due to the limited diameter of the vapour head and the relatively low external circulation not allowing large amounts of energy to be supplied to the system.

See also


  • A. Mersmann, Crystallization Technology Handbook (2001) CRC; 2nd ed. ISBN 0-8247-0528-9
  • Tine Arkenbout-de Vroome, Melt Crystallization Technology (1995) CRC ISBN 1-56676-181-6
  • DTB Crystallizer
  • Oslo Type Crystallizer
  • "Small Molecule Crystalization" (PDF) at Illinois Institute of Technology website
  1. ^ a b Tavare, N.S. (1995). Industrial Crystallization Plenum Press, New York
  2. ^ a b McCabe & Smith (2000). Unit Operations of Chemical Engineering' McGraw-Hill, New York
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Crystallization_(engineering_aspects)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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