The process is used heavily in the chemical industry, for example, to produce ethylene, many forms of carbon, and other chemicals from petroleum, coal, and even wood, to produce coke from coal. Aspirational applications of pyrolysis would convert biomass into syngas and biochar, waste plastics back into usable oil, or waste into safely disposable substances.
Pyrolysis generally consists in heating the material above its decomposition temperature, breaking chemical bonds in its molecules. The fragments usually become smaller molecules, but may combine to produce residues with larger molecular mass, even amorphous covalent solids.
In many settings, some amounts of oxygen, water, or other substances may be present, so that combustion, hydrolysis, or other chemical processes may occur besides pyrolysis proper. Sometimes those chemical are added intentionally, as in the burning of firewood, in the traditional manufacture of charcoal, and in the steam cracking of crude oil.
Conversely, the starting material may be heated in a vacuum or in an inert atmosphere to avoid adverse chemical reactions. Pyrolysis in a vacuum also lowers the boiling point of the byproducts, improving their recovery.
When organic matter is heated at increasing temperatures in open containers, the following processes generally occur, in successive or overlapping stages:
Pyrolysis is the basis of several methods for producing fuel from biomass, i.e. lignocellulosic biomass. Crops studied as biomass feedstock for pyrolysis include native North American prairie grasses such as switchgrass and bred versions of other grasses such as Miscantheus giganteus. Other sources of organic matter as feedstock for pyrolysis include greenwaste, sawdust, waste wood, leaves, vegetables, nut shells, straw, cotton trash, rice hulls, and orange peels. Animal waste including poultry litter, dairy manure, and potentially other manures are also under evaluation. Some industrial byproducts are also suitable feedstock including paper sludge, distillers grain, and sewage sludge.
Pyrolysis can also be used to treat municipal solid waste and plastic waste. The main advantage is the reduction in volume of the waste. In principle, pyrolysis will regenerate the monomers (precursors) to the polymers that are treated, but in practice the process is neither a clean nor an economically competitive source of monomers.