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Waste-to-energy (WtE) or energy-from-waste (EfW) is the process of creating energy in the form of electricity or heat from the incineration of waste source. WtE is a form of energy recovery. Most WtE processes produce electricity directly through combustion, or produce a combustible fuel commodity, such as methane, methanol, ethanol or synthetic fuels.[1]


Incineration, the combustion of organic material such as waste with energy recovery is the most common WtE implementation. All new WtE plants in OECD countries must meet strict emission standards, including those on nitrogen oxides (NO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), heavy metals and dioxins.[2][3] Hence, modern incineration plants are vastly different from the old types, some of which neither recovered energy nor materials. Modern incinerators reduce the volume of the original waste by 95-96 percent, depending upon composition and degree of recovery of materials such as metals from the ash for recycling.[4]

Concerns regarding the operation of incinerators include fine particulate, heavy metals, trace dioxin and acid gas emissions, even though these emissions are relatively low[5] from modern incinerators. Other concerns include toxic fly ash and incinerator bottom ash (IBA) management. [6] Discussions regarding waste resource ethics include the opinion that incinerators destroy valuable resources and the fear that they may reduce the incentives for recycling and waste minimization activities. [7]. This is open to question, however, as the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) is produced by recycling centres (MRFs), who make their money from selling on recoverable material, and the name Residue Derived Fuel even suggests that it's made from what's left over, not the materials being pulled out. It is not in the interests of the MRF operators to give away for free the very materials they could otherwise sell. Incinerators have electric efficiencies on the order of 14-28%. [8] The rest of the energy can be utilized for e.g. district heating, but is otherwise lost as waste heat.

The method of using incineration to convert municipal solid waste (MSW) to energy is a relatively old method of waste-to-energy production. Incineration generally entails burning an RDF to boil water which powers steam generators that make electric energy to be used in homes and businesses. One problem associated with incinerating MSW to make electrical energy, is the potential for pollutants to enter the atmosphere with the flue gases from the boiler. These pollutants can be acidic and in the 1980s were reported to cause environmental damage by turning rain into acid rain. Since then, the industry has removed this problem by the use of lime scrubbers and electro-static precipitators on smokestacks. The limestone mineral used in these scrubbers has a pH of approximately 8 which means it is a base. By passing the smoke through the lime scrubbers, any acids that may be in the smoke are neutralized which prevents the acid from reaching the atmosphere and hurting our environment. (Field) According to the New York Times, modern incineration plants are so clean that "many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration. "[9]

WtE technologies other than incinerationEdit

There are a number of other new and emerging technologies that are able to produce energy from waste and other fuels without direct combustion. Many of these technologies have the potential to produce more electric power from the same amount of fuel than would be possible by direct combustion. This is mainly due to the separation of corrosive components (ash) from the converted fuel, thereby allowing higher combustion temperatures in e.g. boilers, gas turbines, internal combustion engines, fuel cells. Some are able to efficiently convert the energy into liquid or gaseous fuels:

Thermal technologies:

Non-thermal technologies:

Global WTE developmentsEdit

During the 2001-2007 period, the WTE capacity increased by about four million metric tons per annum. Japan and China built several plants that were based on direct smelting or on fluidized bed combustion of solid waste. In China there are about 50 WTE plants. Japan is the largest user in thermal treatment of MSW in the world with 40 million tons. Some of the newest plants use stoker technology and others use the advanced oxygen enrichment technology. There are also over one hundred thermal treatment plants using relatively novel processes such as direct smelting, the Ebara fluidization process and the Thermo- select -JFE gasification and melting technology process.[10] In Patras, Greece, a Greek company just finished testing a system that shows potential. It generates 25kwatts of electricity and 25kwatts of heat from waste water.[11] In India its first energy bio-science center was developed to reduce the country’s green house gases and its dependency on fossil fuel.[12]

Biofuel Energy Corporation of Denver, CO, opened two new biofuel plants in Wood River, NE, and Fairmont, MN, in July 2008. These plants use distillation to make ethanol for use in motor vehicles and other engines. Both plants are currently reported to be working at over 90% capacity. Fulcrum BioEnergy incorporated located in Pleasanton, CA, is currently building a WTE plant near Reno, NV. The plant is scheduled to open in early 2010 under the name of Sierra BioFuels plant. BioEnergy incorporated predicts that the plant will produce approximately 10.5 million gallons per year of ethanol from nearly 90,000 tons per year of MSW.(Biofuels News)

Waste to energy technology includes fermentation, which can take biomass and create ethanol, using waste cellulosic or organic material. In the fermentation process, the sugar in the waste is changed to carbon dioxide and alcohol, in the same general process that is used to make wine. Normally fermentation occurs with no air present. Esterification can also be done using waste to energy technologies, and the result of this process is biodiesel. The cost effectiveness of esterification will depend on the feedstock being used, and all the other relevant factors such as transportation distance, amount of oil present in the feedstock, and others.[13] Gasification and pyrolysis by now can reach gross thermal conversion efficiencies (fuel to gas) up to 75%, however a complete combustion is superior in terms of fuel conversion efficiency.[14] Some pyrolysis processes need an outside heat source which may be supplied by the gasification process, making the combined process self sustaining.

Carbon dioxide emissionsEdit

In thermal WtE technologies, nearly all of the C content in the waste is emitted as carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere (when including final combustion of the products from pyrolysis and gasification; except when producing bio-char for fertilizer). Municipal solid waste (MSW) contain approximately the same mass fraction of carbon as CO2 itself (27%), so treatment of 1 metric ton (1.1 short-ton) of MSW produce approximately 1 metric ton (1.1 short-ton) of CO2.

In the event that the waste was landfilled, 1 metric ton (1.1 short-ton) of MSW would produce approximately 62 cubic metres (2,200 cu ft) methane via the anaerobic decomposition of the biodegradable part of the waste.

This amount of methane has more than twice the global warming potential than the 1 metric ton (1.1 short-ton) of CO2, which would have been produced by combustion. In some countries, large amounts of landfill gas are collected, but still the global warming potential of the landfill gas emitted to atmosphere in e.g. the US in 1999 was approximately 32 % higher than the amount of CO2 that would have been emitted by combustion.[15]

In addition, nearly all biodegradable waste is biomass. That is, it has biological origin. This material has been formed by plants using atmospheric CO2 typically within the last growing season. If these plants are regrown the CO2 emitted from their combustion will be taken out from the atmosphere once more.

Such considerations are the main reason why several countries administrate WtE of the biomass part of waste as renewable energy.[16] The rest—mainly plastics and other oil and gas derived products—is generally treated as non-renewables.

Determination of the biomass fractionEdit

Several methods have been developed by the European CEN 343 working group to determine the biomass fraction of waste fuels, such as Refuse Derived Fuel/Solid Recovered Fuel. The initial two methods developed (CEN/TS 15440) were the manual sorting method and the selective dissolution method. A detailed systematic comparison of these two methods has been recently[when?] published.[17] Since each method suffered from limitations in properly characterizing the biomass fraction, two alternative methods have been developed.

The first method uses the principles of radiocarbon dating. A technical review (CEN/TR 15591:2007) outlining the carbon 14 method was published in 2007. A technical standard of the carbon dating method (CEN/TS 15747:2008) will be published in 2008.[dated info] In the United States, there is already an equivalent carbon 14 method under the standard method ASTM D6866.

The second method (so-called balance method) employs existing data on materials composition and operating conditions of the WtE plant and calculates the most probable result based on a mathematical-statistical model.[18] Currently the balance method is installed at three Austrian incinerators.

A comparison between both methods carried out at three full-scale incinerators in Switzerland showed that both methods came to the same results.[19]

Carbon 14 dating can determine with precision the biomass fraction of waste, and also determine the biomass calorific value. Determining the calorific value is important for green certificate programs such as the Renewable Obligation Certificate program in the United Kingdom. These programs award certificates based on the energy produced from biomass. Several research papers, including the one commissioned by the Renewable Energy Association in the UK, have been published that demonstrate how the carbon 14 result can be used to calculate the biomass calorific value. The UK gas and electricity markets authority, Ofgem, released a statement in 2011 accepting the use of Carbon 14 as a way to determine the biomass energy content of waste feedstock under their administration of the Renewables Obligation[20]. Their Fuel Measurement and Sampling (FMS) questionnaire describes the information they look for when considering such proposals[21].

Examples of waste-to-energy plantsEdit

According to ISWA there are 431 WtE plants in Europe (2005) and 89 in the United States (2004).[22] The following are some examples of WtE plants.

Waste incineration WtE plants
Liquid fuel producing plants (planned or under construction)
  • Edmonton Waste-to-ethanol Facility, Enerkem-process, fueled by RDF, scheduled for completion 2012, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.[24]
  • Mississippi Waste-to-ethanol Plant, Enerkem-process, scheduled for completion 2013, Pontotoc, Mississippi, USA.[25]
Plasma Gasification Waste-to-Energy plants
  • • The US Air Force Transportable Plasma Waste to Energy System (TPWES) facility (PyroGenesis technology) at Hurlburt Field, Florida.[26]

See alsoEdit


  2. Waste incineration. Europa (October 2011).
  3. DIRECTIVE 2000/76/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 4 December 2000 on the incineration of waste. European Union (4 December 2000).
  4. Waste to Energy in Denmark by Ramboll Consult
  5. Emissionsfaktorer og emissionsopgørelse for decentral kraftvarme, Kortlægning af emissioner fra decentrale kraftvarmeværker, Ministry of the Environment of Denmark 2006 (in Danish)
  6. Waste Gasification: Impacts on the Environment and Public Health
  7. Waste Gasification: Impacts on the Environment and Public Health
  8. Waste Gasification: Impacts on the Environment and Public Health
  9. Rosenthal, Elisabeth (12 April 2010). "Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags". The New York Times. 
  10. columbia university
  11. clean-tech-Greece
  12. clean-tech- India
  13. bionomic fuel
  14. The Viability of Advanced Thermal Treatment of MSW in the UK, 49 by Fichtner Consulting Engineers Ltd
  15. Themelis, Nickolas J. An overview of the global waste-to-energy industry, Waste Management World 2003
  16. [1], from the homepage of the UK Renewable Energy Association
  17. The biogenic content of process streams from mechanical–biological treatment plants producing solid recovered fuel. Do the manual sorting and selective dissolution determination methods correlate? by Mélanie Séverin, Costas A. Velis, Phil J. Longhurst and Simon J.T. Pollard., 2010. In: Waste Management 30(7): 1171-1182
  18. A New Method to Determine the Ratio of Electricity Production from Fossil and Biogenic Sources in Waste-to-Energy Plants. by Fellner, J., Cencic, O. and Rechberger, H., 2007. In: Environmental Science & Technology, 41(7): 2579-2586.
  19. Determination of biogenic and fossil CO2 emitted by waste incineration based on 14CO2 and mass balances. by Mohn, J., Szidat, S., Fellner, J., Rechberger, H., Quartier, R., Buchmann, B. and Emmenegger, L., 2008. In: Bioresource Technology, 99: 6471-6479.
  22. Energy from Waste State-of-the-Art Report, Statistics 5th Edition August 2006. International Solid Waste Association (ISWA)
  23. Algonquin Power Energy from Waste Facility from the homepage of Algonquin Power
  24. Waste-to-Biofuel Facility from the website of City of Edmonton, Alberta.
  25. Enerkem. Pontotoc MSW-to-Biofuels plant.
  26. AFSOC makes 'green' history while investing in future. US Air Force Special Operations Command. Retrieved on 2011-04-28.

Further reading Edit

  • Field, Christopher B. "Emissions pathways, climate change, and impacts." PNAS 101.34 (2004): 12422–12427.
  • Sudarsan, K. G., and Mary P. Anupama. "The Relevance of Biofuels." Current Science 90.6 (2006): 748. 18 Oct. 2009 <>.
  • Tilman, David. "Environmental, economic, and energetic costs." PNAS 103.30 (2006): 11206–11210.
  • "Biofuels News". Chemical Engineering Progress. . 18 Oct. 2009. <Http://>
  • “Waste to Ethanol." Centurymarc. 2007. 10

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