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A distillaion column operates as a series of distillation units where each successive unit adds to the degree of separation.

The distillation units operate as "plates" stacked on top of each other. At each plate vapor and liquid are thoroughly mixed to achieve equilibrium. The equilibrium vapor transcends to the next upper plate, where it comes into intimate contact with the liquid there. The equilibrium liquid flows down to the plate below, where it comes into close contact with the vapor the bubbles up from the plate below that. This setup creates two counter-parallel streams: vapor bubbling up through the plates, and liquid gravitating down through the same plates in opposite direction. The liquid at the lower plates is concentrated with the less volatile components, while the vapor at the upper plates is concentrated with the more volatile component.

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