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Basic Principles and Processes in

the Operation of Incineration

Incineration is the disposal of waste by controlled burning. Solid, liquid and
gaseous wastes are converted into a small amount of ash and a large volume of
exhaust gases. The gases are cleaned before being released into the
atmosphere. Depending on the waste type, the ash can be used in construction
or sent for landfill. Most incinerators recover and use the heat produced. Because
of this, incinerators are often referred to as Energy from Waste (EfW) or Waste to
Energy (W2E) plants. Incineration is sometimes called thermal treatment.
Incineration can be used for a wide variety of waste types including municipal
solid waste (MSW) or domestic rubbish, industrial and chemical wastes,
contaminated material from health care and residues from animal processing.
Incinerators vary in size from small plants which process waste from a single
factory or hospital to very large plants that handle the waste of whole cities. The
basic principles are the same in all cases.

When something burns it reacts with oxygen and is broken down into simpler
molecules and heat is released. Three things are needed for combustion to
happen a fuel, a supply of oxygen and a high temperature.
Fuel: not all materials will burn so to get combustion a supply of a material that
will burn is needed. The main fuel type in waste is organic material, i.e. material
that contains carbon. This comes from both biological and petrochemical
sources. Paper, timber, food waste and animal fats are examples of biological
organic materials while plastics and solvents are petrochemical organic
Oxygen: combustion is the reaction where a fuel combines with oxygen and is
broken into simpler oxide molecules. When a fuel containing carbon is burnt the
carbon is converted into carbon dioxide (CO 2) with the release of heat. To burn
properly there must be enough oxygen to react with all the fuel. The reaction can
only occur where oxygen comes into direct contact with the fuel. For solid and
liquids fuels this can only occur at the surface so it is best to break the fuel up
into small particles or droplets.
Temperature: The reaction with oxygen will only occur at a high temperature. The
temperature needed varies with the material and can be as high as 800 oC. As the
fuel heats up the moisture content is first boiled off. Next volatile gases are
released and mix with oxygen in the air to burn. Finally the remaining solid
carbon burns.

Combustion By-Products
If a fuel is burnt completely then all carbon in it is converted to carbon dioxide
(CO2), all the hydrogen is converted to water (H 2O), any sulphur is converted to

sulphur dioxide (SO2) and any nitrogen into nitrous oxides (NO x). These will all be
released as gases. If the fuel contains other elements, such as metals, it will
produce a solid residue or ash. The amount of ash produced varies with the fuel
composition but is usually less than 10% of the weight of the original fuel. Some
of the ash will be in the form of very fine particles and will remain suspended in
the exhaust gases. This is called fly ash.
Complete combustion can only take place if enough oxygen is supplied and the
fuel and exhaust gases reach a high enough temperature for a sufficiently long

Incomplete Combustion
If the fuel is not burnt completely then large undesirable organic molecules can
be created and released with the exhaust gases. In particular, if the fuel contains
chlorine, incomplete combustion can lead to production of substances called
dioxins and furans. These are a range of complicated organic molecules which
are poisonous to varying degrees. Once released into the environment they get
into the food chain, persist for long times and accumulate in the fatty tissue of
animals. Exposure to relatively low levels of dioxins and furans can lead to a wide
range of health issues such as liver disease, certain cancers, developmental and
immune system problems.
Dioxins and furans can be produced by the incomplete combustion of any
organic materials containing chlorine such as plastics or treated timber. To
prevent their release very high temperatures must be reached and maintained.
Burning of rubbish in bonfires is one of the main sources of dioxins and furans.

Incinerator Components and Operation

An incinerator is designed to achieve complete combustion of the waste with the
maximum extraction of heat from the exhaust gases and extensive cleaning of
the exhaust gases to ensure that only minimal amounts of harmful substances
are released into the atmosphere.


1 Waste Supply 2 Combustion Chamber 3 Boiler 4 Scrubber 5 Filter 6 Draft fan

7 Stack with emissions monitoring 8 Bottom Ash Collection
9 Fly Ash Collection
7 Stack with emissions monitoring 8 Bottom Ash Collection

9 Fly Ash Collection

Figure 1- Block Diagram of an Incineration Plant

The construction and operation of an incinerator can be broken down into five
main stages:
1. Waste Storage and Preparation. Sufficient waste to run the incinerator
must be stored at the site. The way it is stored will depend on the waste
type. Solid wastes are usually stored under negative pressure to minimize
the release of odours. The waste may be sorted to remove any noncombustible materials such as metals. It may be mechanically processed
to reduce the moisture content or to break it into evenly sized pieces for
easier handling and burning. It is always mixed thoroughly to give a
consistent fuel.
2. The Combustion Chamber. This is the key part of the system where the
burning actually takes place. There are several different designs
depending on the waste type. A summary of the main types is given in
table 1. The common features are:
a. The supply and movement of the waste through the chamber is
automated and adjustable.
b. There is an adjustable forced supply of air. Insufficient air will lead
to incomplete combustion while excess air makes it difficult to
achieve the required temperatures. The air is usually drawn in from
the storage area bringing any dust and odours with it to be
destroyed in the combustion process ensuring that odours and dust
do not escape from the building.

c. The chamber is designed to achieve thorough mixing of the waste

and the gases released with the supplied air to ensure complete

There is a controllable supply of a secondary fuel such as natural

gas. The amount of secondary fuel supplied is adjusted to ensure
the required temperature is reached.

e. The chamber is designed so that the exhaust gases are kept at the
required temperature for a sufficiently long time.

The chamber will usually have an ash collection and removal

system. Ash from the combustion chamber is called Incinerator
Bottom Ash. It is first cooled with water and then sorted and graded
and used as a building aggregate

3. Energy Extraction. The hot exhaust or flue gases are passed through heat
exchangers and the heat removed is used to raise steam. This can be used
to supply a local heat demand or to drive turbines which will generate
electricity. Ideally both are done and the system is called a Combined Heat
and Power (CHP) plant.
4. Flue Gas Cleaning is usually done in two stages. First, acid producing
chemicals such as HCl and SO2 and toxic heavy metals such as cadmium,
mercury and lead are removed. This is usually done by wet scrubbing
where a fine mist containing an alkaline solution, usually lime, and active
carbon is sprayed through the exhaust gases to react with and capture the
harmful substances. Next fly ash is removed either by filters or
electrostatic precipitators (ESP). NOx levels may be reduced by an
additional step called Selective Catalytic Reaction or by the injection of
ammonia into the combustion gases. These techniques are also used to
clean the flue gases of coal fired power stations such as Moneypoint. The
fly ash and residues from the scrubbing can contain high levels of toxic
materials and are usually disposed of in a special landfill site.
5. Flue Gas Monitoring. Finally a thorough and continuous analysis of the
exhaust is made to ensure that amounts of harmful substances released
are below the permitted levels. The substances monitored will depend on
the waste type but include dioxins and furans, heavy metals, SO 2, HCl, NOx
and total organic carbon(TOC). The last is a measure of the amount of
carbon not completely combusted.

Waste Type


Solid industrial or

Rotary Kiln

Municipal Solid


Liquid or Gaseous


Homogenous e.g.


Table 1- Combustion Chamber Types

Role of Incineration
EU guidelines on waste treatment rank the options in order of preference as
reduce, reuse, recycle, recover energy, and finally dumping. Incineration is
currently the main method of energy recovery. It is preferable to landfill as it
uses the waste as a fuel reducing the amount of fossil fuels that need to be
burned. Emission levels from incinerators are similar to those from coal burning
power plants. Waste dumped in landfill decomposes over time with risk of the
emission of pollutants, especially methane, to atmosphere and the leaching of
contaminants into the water table. Methane is much more damaging (~25x)
greenhouse gas than CO2. The EU has strict targets for the reduction of the
amount of waste being dumped in landfills and incineration is generally seen as
necessary in achieving these targets.

Advantages of Incineration

It is the only practical method of disposing of certain wastes such as

unwanted chemicals and contaminated material which cannot go to
landfill. If incineration is not available locally such material has to be

Significantly reduces the quantity of material that must go to landfill and

associated pollution risks.

Produces useful energy from waste, reducing fossil fuel consumption and
resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emission.

The costs, energy usage and GHG emissions can be lower than those in
the collection, transport and processing involved in recycling.

Building incinerators in or close to urban areas reduces the cost of and

emissions from waste transport and means the waste is treated where it is

Disadvantages of Incineration

If incorrectly operated can lead to the release of harmful levels of

pollutants. Even in proper operation small amounts of fine particles and
pollutants are released. As the technology has matured emission levels
have reduced dramatically in Germany in 2000 dioxin emissions were
~1/1000th of the 1990 levels.

Incineration of MSW produces relatively large amounts of fly ash

(approximately 4% of original waste weight) which must be dumped in
secure landfills.

Incineration could reduce the incentive to recycle. The energy content of

waste with all recyclable components removed is much less than
unsegregated waste. Incineration plants could compete with recycling for
some materials.

Incineration plants have a large initial capital cost and require long term
contracts to be viable. This could hamper the deployment of future more
efficient waste treatment technology.

Regulation of Incineration
In the EU incineration is governed by the Waste Incineration Directive (WID). This
specifies the required temperatures and the maximum emission levels permitted
for a wide range of pollutants. If more than 1% of the waste contains chlorine it is
deemed hazardous waste and the exhaust gases must be raised to 1100 oC for at
least 2 seconds. For waste with lower levels of chlorine the requirement is 850 oC
for at least 2 seconds. The emission limits are based on continuous
measurement of most of the pollutants but only six monthly measurements of
dioxins, furans and heavy metals. In Ireland the EPA enforces the directive.

Status of Incineration in Europe

Energy extraction from municipal waste is a well established technology in
Europe with all western European countries except Ireland having numerous
plants. As shown in figure 2 the countries with the highest recycling rates also
have high incineration rates.

Figure 2. MSW Treatment in Europe in 2007

In Ireland there are currently around 11 incinerators in operation at chemical

and pharmaceutical plants burning waste produced on site. The EPA has granted
licences for 3 commercial incinerators which will treat waste produced
elsewhere. All three projects have generated major controversy. Construction on
the plant in Duleek Co. Meath started in September 2009 and is due to be
completed before the end of 2011. It will process 200,000 tonnes of MSW per
year and export 11MW to the grid. The proposed plant at Ringaskiddy Co. Cork
will have 2 separate incinerators. One will process 100,000 tonnes of industrial
waste including hazardous materials while the other will treat 200,000 tonnes of
MSW. The project is awaiting a final decision from An Bord Pleanala. The planned
incinerator at Poolbeg in Dublin will treat around 300,000 turns of MSW. The
project has an EPA licence and planning permission but is waiting on government

Figure 3: Distribution of MSW Incinerators in Europe in 2008