Federal Remediation Technologies Roundtable

Thermal Desorption


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Thermal desorption is a physical separation process and is not designed to destroy organics. Wastes are heated to volatilize water and organic contaminants. A carrier gas or vacuum system transports volatilized water and organics to the gas treatment system. The bed temperatures and residence times designed into these systems will volatilize selected contaminants but will typically not oxidize them.

Two common thermal desorption designs are the rotary dryer and thermal screw. Rotary dryers are horizontal cylinders that can be indirect- or direct-fired. The dryer is normally inclined and rotated. For the thermal screw units, screw conveyors or hollow augers are used to transport the medium through an enclosed trough. Hot oil or steam circulates through the auger to indirectly heat the medium. All thermal desorption systems require treatment of the off-gas to remove particulates and contaminants. Particulates are removed by conventional particulate removal equipment, such as wet scrubbers or fabric filters. Contaminants are removed through condensation followed by carbon adsorption, or they are destroyed in a secondary combustion chamber or a catalytic oxidizer. Most of these units are transportable.

Three types of thermal desorption are available and briefly described as following:

  1. Direct Fired: Fire is applied directly upon the surface of contaminated media. The main purpose of the fire is to desorb contaminants from the soil though some contaminants may be thermally oxidized.

  2. Indirect Fired: A direct-fired rotary dryer heats an air stream which, by direct contact, desorbs water and organic contaminants from the soil. The Low Temperature Thermal Aeration (LTTA®) developed by Canonie Environmental Services Corporation is a good example of indirect fired system which has been successfully used to remove DDT family compounds from soil.

  3. Indirect Heated: An externally fired rotary dryer volatilizes the water and organics from the contaminated media into an inert carrier gas stream. The carrier gas is later treated to remove or recover the contaminants. XTRAX™ thermal Desorption System is a process using indirect heated desorption followed by a high-energy scrubber gas treatment, which successfully removed >99% of PCB from contaminated soil.

Based on the operating temperature of the desorber, thermal desorption processes can be categorized into two groups: high temperature thermal desorption (HTTD) and low temperature thermal desorption (LTTD).

High Temperature Thermal Desorption (HTTD)

HTTD is a full-scale technology in which wastes are heated to 320 to 560 °C (600 to 1,000 °F). HTTD is frequently used in combination with incineration, solidification/stabilization, or dechlorination, depending upon site-specific conditions. The technology has proven it can produce a final contaminant concentration level below 5 mg/kg for the target contaminants identified.

Low Temperature Thermal Desorption (LTTD)

In LTTD, wastes are heated to between 90 and 320 °C (200 to 600 °F). LTTD is a full-scale technology that has been proven successful for remediating petroleum hydrocarbon contamination in all types of soil. Contaminant destruction efficiencies in the afterburners of these units are greater than 95%. The same equipment could probably meet stricter requirements with minor modifications, if necessary. Decontaminated soil retains its physical properties. Unless being heated to the higher end of the LTTD temperature range, organic components in the soil are not damaged, which enables treated soil to retain the ability to support future biological activity.

Typical High Temperature Thermal Desorption Process



Thermal desorption systems have varying degrees of effectiveness against the full spectrum of organic contaminants.

The target contaminant groups for LTTD systems are nonhalogenated VOCs and fuels. The technology can be used to treat SVOCs at reduced effectiveness.

The target contaminants for HTTD are SVOCs, PAHs, PCBs, and pesticides; however, VOCs and fuels also may be treated, but treatment may be less cost-effective. Volatile metals may be removed by HTTD systems. The presence of chlorine can affect the volatilization of some metals, such as lead. The process is applicable for the separation of organics from refinery wastes, coal tar wastes, wood-treating wastes, creosote-contaminated soils, hydrocarbon-contaminated soils, mixed (radioactive and hazardous) wastes, synthetic rubber processing waste, pesticides and paint wastes.


Factors that may limit the applicability and effectiveness of the process include:

  • There are specific particle size and materials handling requirements that can impact applicability or cost at specific sites.

  • Dewatering may be necessary to achieve acceptable soil moisture content levels.

  • Highly abrasive feed potentially can damage the processor unit.

  • Heavy metals in the feed may produce a treated solid residue that requires stabilization.

  • Clay and silty soils and high humic content soils increase reaction time as a result of binding of contaminants.

Data Needs:

In addition to identifying soil contaminants and their concentrations, information necessary for engineering thermal systems to specific applications include soil moisture content and classification, determination of boiling points for various compounds to be removed, and treatability tests to determine the efficiency of thermal desorption for removing various contaminants at various temperatures and residence times. A sieve analysis is needed to determine the dust loading in the system to properly design and size the air pollution control equipment.

Performance Data:

Most of the hardware components for thermal desorption systems are readily available off the shelf. All ex situ soil thermal treatment systems employ similar feed systems consisting of a screening device to separate and remove materials greater than 5 centimeters (2 inches), a belt conveyor to move the screened soil from the screen to the first thermal treatment chamber, and a weight belt to measure soil mass. Occasionally, augers are used rather than belt conveyors, but either type of system requires daily maintenance and is subject to failures that shut the system down. Soil conveyors in large systems seem more prone to failure than those in smaller systems. Size reduction equipment can be incorporated into the feed system, but its installation is usually avoided to minimize shutdown as a result of equipment failure.

Many vendors offer LTTD units mounted on a single trailer. Soil throughput rates are typically 13 to 18 metric tons (15 to 20 tons) per hour for sandy soils and less than 6 metric tons (7 tons) per hour for clay soils when more than 10% of the material passes a 200-mesh screen. Units with capacities ranging from 23 to 46 metric tons (25 to 50 tons) per hour require four or five trailers for transport and 2 days for setup.

The time to complete cleanup of the 'standard' 18,200-metric ton (20,000-ton) site using HTTD is just over 4 months.

Soil storage piles and feed equipment are generally covered as protection from rain to minimize soil moisture content and material handling problems. Soils and sediments with water contents greater than 20 to 25% may require the installation of a dryer in the feed system to increase the throughput of the desorber and to facilitate the conveying of the feed to the desorber. Some volatilization of contaminants occurs in the dryer, and the gases are routed to a thermal treatment chamber.


Rates charged to remediate petroleum hydrocarbon contaminated soil range from $45 to $330 per metric ton ($40 to $300 per ton) of soil. Of this cost, approximately $20 to $35 per metric ton ($15 to $30 per ton) is required for direct operating costs such as utility consumption and repair. Vendors typically perform preventive maintenance, such as lubrication, on a daily basis. Unit transportation and setup costs are typically $3.30 to $5.50 per metric ton ($3 to $5 per ton), seldom exceeding a mobilization cost of $200,000. Excavation of contaminated soil and the replacement of the treated soil costs approximately $6 to $11 per metric ton ($5 to $10 per ton).

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