A waste incineration plant is not exactly the place that first comes to mind when thinking about the use of artificial intelligence (AI). In the facility, which is impressive due to its sheer size and near the Mannheim industrial port, one load of garbage after the other is delivered through several gates at the same time. The rubbish is then piled up into a mountain of rubbish up to 40 m high by a crane operator who overlooks the enormous hall from his cab high up.
It depends on the crane operator
The waste that is delivered here is very different. This also means that it has a very different calorific value. The calorific value is high for commercial waste and low for sewage sludge. Residual waste from households has a medium calorific value. So a mattress burns better than a pile of nappies. The trick now is to ensure that the burning process is as even as possible by selecting the right material to be burnt. This is the task of the crane operator, who thus plays a central role within the entire process.
So that the waste can be turned into energy, the crane operator uses his many years of experience and his gut feeling to estimate the calorific value of the waste and fills it with the help of the huge gripper arm of his crane into the large hopper to the left of his cockpit. 30 minutes later, the waste arrives in the plant's furnace, where it is incinerated and thus converted into usable energy.
The incineration process in the kiln is monitored not only by the crane operator but also by several process engineers who can control the burning process by adding combustion air and regulating the speed at which the waste is transported into the kiln for incineration. If the crane operator has not correctly estimated the calorific value of the delivered waste, or if he simply has not received enough waste with a high calorific value, then the engineers have to intervene. This is where the AI comes into play.
How is AI used and what does it do?
The core competence of EDI GmbH - Engineering Data Intelligence is to optimise processes through the use of artificial intelligence. For MVV Umwelt GmbH in Mannheim, AI is being developed by EDI GmbH as a special application in the field of waste recycling: What is the approximate calorific value of the waste that has just been delivered? How does the crane operator rearrange the waste? Which waste is stored at which location? Which waste is filled into the large hopper by the crane operator and when? All of this information is taken into account by the AI to generate a digital twin of the refuse pile. This then supports the crane operator in keeping the incineration process more even and causing fewer fluctuations in the calorific value.
AI with people for people
The special thing about EDI GmbH's approach is that it incorporates the knowledge of the experts on site, in this case the knowledge and experience of the crane operator, into the process optimisation. The basic premise is always to support the people involved with previously inaccessible, intelligent information so that they can achieve their goals even more efficiently. The knowledge made visible by AI is made available to those who need it in the form and at the time they need it for the best possible support. Decisions are not taken away from people, but they are supported by AI to make better and more sustainable decisions.
By optimising the process with the help of AI, it will be possible to reduce CO2 emissions and increase the energy gain through an optimised combustion process. Not only the chemical processes are considered, but also the organisational processes on site. Incinerating waste with the help of AI is therefore a contribution to climate protection, the central issue of our time.