The organic matter that is placed in landfills goes through a decomposition process that is exothermic and releases heat inside the landfill space. There are also other exothermic processes such as metal corrosion, hydration, carbonation, and acid-base neutralization that contribute to the heat generation phenomenon in landfills. Municipal solid waste has a relatively low heat conductivity characteristic, which means the heat is not as easily conducted through the waste keeping the landfill interior generally warmer than the areas near the landfill exterior.
Landfills expel the heat in different ways; propagating through the waste mass to the air, ground, leachate, and gas heat sinks. The heat escapes the landfill at its boundaries by convection to the air above the landfill surface and by conduction to the ground below the waste. Heat can also escape from landfills through liquids and gases removed from the landfill. For example, by conduction, via leachate that flows through the waste and is removed by leachate sumps and by convection, and via gases generated inside the landfill that are removed through the gas collection system.
The large majority of landfills in the country show no signs of special conditions indicating too much heat. The characteristics noted in this blog have been observed in a few large, deep, wet landfills. Field investigations at landfills with high temperatures revealed that the highest temperatures are generally located at mid-point to the two-thirds depth of waste from the top surface. Temperatures as high as 250 °F have been recorded by specialized measuring devices.
Under certain conditions, elevated temperatures may occur inside a landfill, and the excess heat changes the character of chemical reactions taking place in the landfill, such as the decomposition process of the organic matter. Other documented changes that may take place in accumulated heat conditions are: leachate becoming stronger with higher BOD, lower pH, higher carboxylic acids and salts; concentrations of certain acids increasing; carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide generation increasing; the ratio of methane to carbon dioxide decreasing; hydrogen generation increasing; landfill odors changing to a significantly pungent character; landfill settlement rates increasing; gas generation and gas pressure increasing; leachate generation increasing; along with other changes.
Heat generation in landfills is studied by researchers, reported in technical literature and scientific papers by academia and the industry. A summary of the findings related to the amount of heat generated from municipal solid waste in landfills is presented in Table 1 of Heat Generation in Municipal Solid Waste Landfills posted on the California Polytechnic State University, Robert E. Kennedy Library website.
Since the issue of high temperatures in landfills is of extreme importance to landfill operators with respect to compliance, operations, and financial aspects of these cases, finding out the cause and sources of excess heat is a hot subject in the field of landfill science. The largest research grant supporting the on-going research in this field was awarded by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) in December 2014. So far, three parts of a technical article explaining chemical mechanisms through which organic matter decomposes and generate various types of other chemicals and heat have been published by the researchers of the above grant in Waste360. The research is on-going, and more information will be published in future. Links to the first three parts of the above article are provided here:
Prevention, Diagnosing and Managing ETLFs
SCS was involved in the preparation of standards for large, deep and wet landfills for a major waste operator in 2016. The intent of the standards is to implement measures to prevent elevated temperature conditions in large, deep, and wet landfills. SCS’s experience at such landfills and its in-depth knowledge can be valuable to those waste operators who are either experiencing elevated temperature conditions in their landfills or want to prevent conditions forming in their landfills proactively.
About the Author: Dr. Ali Khatami