Industry Overview: Waste to Energy

The waste to energy industry utilises several waste treatment methods. Municipal and industrial solid waste is converted into electricity, and sometimes into heat for industrial processing and district heating systems. The main process is of course incineration, but intermediate steps of pyrolysis, gasification, and anaerobic digestion are sometimes used to convert the waste into useful by-products that are then used to generate power through turbines or other equipment. This technology is gaining wide recognition globally as a greener and cleaner form of energy than traditional burning of fossil fuels, and as a means of reducing waste production.

Types of waste to energy


Incineration is a waste treatment process that involves the combustion of energy rich substances contained within waste materials, typically at high temperatures around 1000 degrees C. Industrial plants for waste incineration are commonly referred to as waste-to-energy facilities and are often sizeable power stations in their own right. Incineration and other high-temperature waste treatment systems are often described as “thermal treatment”. During the process waste is converted into heat and steam that can be used to drive a turbine in order to generate electricity. This method currently has an efficiency of around 15-29%, although it does have potential for improvements.


Pyrolysis is a different waste treatment process where decomposition of solid hydrocarbon wastes, typically plastics, takes place at high temperatures without oxygen present, in an atmosphere of inert gases. This treatment is usually conducted at or above 500 °C, providing enough heat to deconstruct the long chain molecules including bio-polymers into simpler lower mass hydrocarbons.


This process is used to make gaseous fuels from heavier fuels and from waste containing combustible material. In this process, carbonaceous substances are converted into carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and a small amount of hydrogen at high temperature. In this process, gas is generated which is a good source of usable energy. This gas can then be used to produce electricity and heat.

Plasma Arc Gasification

In this process, a plasma torch is used to ionise energy rich material. Syngas is produced which may then be used to make fertiliser or generate electricity. This method is more of a waste disposal technique than a serious means of generating gas, often consuming as much energy as the gas it produces can provide.

Reasons for Waste to Energy

As this technology is gaining wide recognition globally in regards to waste production and the demand for clean energy.

  • Avoids methane emissions from landfills
  • Offsets greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuel electrical production
  • Recovers and recycles valuable resources, such as metals
  • Produces clean, reliable base-loaded energy and steam
  • Uses less land per megawatt than other renewable energy sources
  • Sustainable and steady renewable fuel source (compared to wind and solar)
  • Destroys chemical waste
  • Results in low emission levels, typically well below permitted levels
  • Catalytically destroys nitrogen oxides (NOx), dioxins and furans using an selective catalytic reduction (SCR)

What are the Gas Hazards?

There are many processes to turn waste into energy, these include, biogas plants, refuse use, leachate pool, combustion and heat recovery. All these processes pose gas hazards to those working in these environments.

Within a Biogas Plant, biogas is produced. This is formed when organic materials such as agricultural and food waste are broken down by bacteria in an oxygen-deficient environment. This is a process called anaerobic digestion. When the biogas has been captured, it can be used to produce heat and electricity for engines, microturbines and fuel cells. Clearly, biogas has high methane content as well as substantial hydrogen sulphide (H2S), and this generates multiple serious gas hazards. (Read our blog for more information on biogas). However, there is an elevated risk of, fire and explosion, confined space hazards, asphyxiation, oxygen depletion and gas poisoning, usually from H2S or ammonia (NH3). Workers in a biogas plant must have personal gas detectors that detect and monitor flammable gas, oxygen and toxic gases like H2S and CO.

Within a refuse collection it is common to find flammable gas methane (CH4) and toxic gases H2S, CO and NH3. This is because refuse bunkers are built several metres underground and gas detectors are usually mounted high up in areas making those detectors hard to service and calibrate. In many cases, a sampling system is a practical solution as air samples can be brought to a convenient location and measured.

Leachate is a liquid that drains (leaches) from an area in which waste is collected, with leachate pools presenting a range of gas hazards. These include the risk of flammable gas (explosion risk), H2S (poison, corrosion), ammonia (poison, corrosion), CO (poison) and adverse oxygen levels (suffocation). Leachate pool and passageways leading to the leachate pool requiring monitoring of CH4, H2S, CO, NH3, oxygen (O2) and CO2. Various gas detectors should be placed along routes to the leachate pool, with output connected to external control panels.

Combustion and heat recovery requires the detection of O2 and toxic gases sulphur dioxide (SO2) and CO. These gases all pose a threat to those who work in boiler house areas.

Another process that is classed as a gas hazard is an exhaust air scrubber. The process is hazardous as the flue gas from incineration is highly toxic. This is because it contains pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), SO2, hydrogen chloride (HCL) and dioxin. NO2 and SO2 are major greenhouse gases, while HCL all of these gas types mentioned here are harmful to human health.

To read more on the waste to energy industry, visit our industry page.

What causes Hydrocarbon Fires?  

Hydrocarbon fires are caused by fuels containing carbon being burned in oxygen or air. Most fuels contain significant levels of carbon, including paper, petrol, and methane – as examples of solid, liquid or gaseous fuels – hence hydrocarbon fires. 

For there to be an explosion risk there needs to be at least 4.4% methane in air or 1.7% propane, but for solvents as little as 0.8 to 1.0% of the air being displaced can be enough to create a fuel air mix that will explode violently on contact with any spark.

Dangers associated with hydrocarbon fires

Hydrocarbon fires are considered highly dangerous when compared to fires that have ignited as a result of simple combustibles, as these fires have the capacity to burn at a larger scale as well as also having the potential to trigger an explosion if the fluids released cannot be controlled or contained. Therefore, these fires pose a dangerous threat to anyone who works in a high-risk area, the dangers include energy related dangers such as burning, incineration of surrounding objects. This is a danger due to the ability that the fires can grow quickly, and that heat can be conducted, converted and radiated to new sources of fuel causing secondary fires. 

Toxic hazards may be present in combustion products, for example, carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), hydrochloric acid (HCL), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) compounds are dangerous for those working in these environments. CO uses the oxygen that is used to transport the red blood cells around the body, at least temporarily, impairing the body’s ability to transport oxygen from our lungs to the cells that need it. HCN adds to this problem by inhibiting the enzyme that tells the red blood cells to let go of the oxygen they have where it is needed – further inhibiting the body’s ability to get the oxygen to the cells that need it. HCL is a generally an acidic compound that is created through overheated cables. This is harmful to the body if ingested as it affects the lining of the mouth, nose, throat, airways, eyes, and lungs. NO2 is created in high temperature combustion and that can cause damage to the human respiratory tract and increase a person’s vulnerability to and in some cases lead to asthma attacks. PAH’s affects the body over a longer period of time, with serve cases leading to cancers and other illnesses. 

We can look up the relevant health levels accepted as workplace safety limits for healthy workers within Europe and the permissible exposure limits for the United States. This gives us a 15-minute time weighted average concentration and an 8-hour time weighted average concentration. 

For the gases these are: 

Gas  STEL (15-minute TWA)  LTEL (8-hour TWA)  LTEL (8hr TWA) 
CO  100ppm  20ppm  50ppm 
NO2  1ppm  0.5ppm  5 Ceiling Limit 
HCL  1ppm  5ppm  5 Ceiling Limit 
HCN  0.9ppm  4.5ppm  10ppm 

The different concentrations represent the different gas risks, with lower numbers needed for more dangerous situations. Fortunately, the EU has worked it all out for us and turned it into their EH40 standard. 

Ways of protecting ourselves

We can take steps to ensure we do not suffer from exposure to fires or their unwanted combustion products. Firstly of course, we can adhere to all fire safety measures, as is the law. Secondly, we can take a pro-active approach and not let potential fuel sources accumulate. Lastly, we can detect and warn of the presence of combustion products using appropriate gas detection equipment. 

Crowcon product solutions

Crowcon provides a range of equipment capable of detecting fuels and the combustion products described above. Our PID products detect solids and liquid-based fuels once they are airborne, as either hydrocarbons on dust particles or solvent vapours. This equipment includes our GasPro portable. The gases can be detected by our Gasman single gas, T3 multi gas and Gas-Pro multi gas pumped portable products, and our Xgard, Xgard Bright and Xgard IQ fixed products – each of which has the capability of detecting all the gases mentioned.