A kiln is a thermally insulated chamber, a type of oven, that produces temperatures sufficient to complete some process, such as hardening, drying, or chemical changes. Various industries and trades use kilns to harden objects made from clay into pottery, bricks etc. Various industries use rotary kilns for pyroprocessing—to calcinate ores, produce cement, lime, and many other materials.
The earliest known kiln dates to around 6000 BC, and was found at the Yarim Tepe site in modern Iraq.
Other uses include:
- To dry green lumber so it can be used immediately
- Drying wood for use as firewood
- Heating wood to the point of pyrolysis to produce charcoal
- For annealing, fusing and deforming glass, or fusing metallic oxide paints to the surface of glass
- For cremation (at high temperature)
- Drying of tobacco leaves
- Drying malted barley for brewing and other fermentations
- Drying hops for brewing (known as a hop kiln or oast house)
- Drying corn (grain) before grinding or storage, sometimes called a corn kiln, corn drying kiln.
- Smelting ore to extract metal
- Heating limestone with clay in the manufacture of Portland cement
- Heating limestone to make quicklime or calcium oxide
Kilns are an essential part of the manufacture of all ceramics, which require heat treatment, often at high temperatures. During this process, chemical and physical reactions occur that permanently alter the unfired body. In the case of pottery, clay materials are shaped, dried and then fired in a kiln. The final characteristics are determined by the composition and preparation of the clay body, by the temperature at which it is fired, and by the glazes that may be used. Although modern kilns often have sophisticated electrical systems to control the firing temperatures, pyrometric devices are also frequently used.
Clay consists of fine-grained particles, that are relatively weak and porous. Clay is combined with other minerals to create a workable clay body. Part of the firing process includes sintering. This heats the clay until the particles partially melt and flow together, creating a strong, single mass, composed of a glassy phase interspersed with pores and crystalline material. Through firing, the pores are reduced in size, causing the material to shrink slightly. This crystalline material is predominantly silicon and aluminium oxides, and is very hard and strong.
Types of kiln
In the broadest terms, there are two types of kiln, both sharing the same basic characteristics of being an insulated box with controlled inner temperature and atmosphere.
In using an intermittent kiln, the ware to be fired is loaded into the kiln. The kiln is closed, and the internal temperature increased according to a schedule. After the firing is completed, both the kiln and the ware are cooled.
Kilns in this type include:
- Clamp kiln
- Skove kiln
- Scotch kiln
- Down-Draft kiln
A continuous kiln, sometimes called a tunnel kiln, is a long structure in which only the central portion is directly heated. From the cool entrance, ware is slowly transported through the kiln, and its temperature is increased steadily as it approaches the central, hottest part of the kiln. From there, its transportation continues and the temperature is reduced until it exits the kiln at near room temperature. A continuous kiln is energy-efficient, because heat given off during cooling is recycled to pre-heat the incoming ware. In some designs, the ware is left in one place, while the heating zone moves across it.
Kilns in this type include:
A special type of kiln, common in tableware and tile manufacture, is the roller-hearth kiln, in which ware placed on batts is carried through the kiln on rollers.
Kiln technology is very old. The development of the kiln from a simple earthen trench filled with pots and fuel, pit firing, to modern methods happened in stages. One improvement was to build a firing chamber around pots with baffles and a stoking hole. This conserved heat. A chimney stack improves the air flow or draw of the kiln, thus burning the fuel more completely. Early examples of kilns found in Britain include those that made roof-tiles during the Roman occupation. These kilns were built up the side of a slope, such that a fire could be lit at the bottom and the heat would rise up into the kiln.
With the industrial age, kilns were designed to use electricity and more refined fuels, including natural gas and propane. Many large industrial pottery kilns use natural gas, as it is generally clean, efficient and easy to control. Modern kilns can be fitted with computerized controls allowing for fine adjustments during the firing. A user may choose to control the rate of temperature climb or ramp, hold or soak the temperature at any given point, or control the rate of cooling. Both electric and gas kilns are common for smaller scale production in industry and craft, handmade and sculptural work.
- Anagama kiln - the Asian anagama kiln has been used since medieval times and is considered the oldest style of production kiln, brought to Japan from China via Korea in the 5th century. This kiln usually consists of one long firing chamber, pierced with smaller ware stacking ports on one side, with a firebox at one end and a flue at the other. Firing time can vary from one day to several weeks. Traditional anagama kilns are also built on a slope to allow for a better draft.
- Bottle kiln - a type of intermittent kiln, usually coal-fired, formerly used in the firing of pottery; such a kiln was surrounded by a tall brick hovel or cone, of typical bottle shape.
- Catenary arch kiln, typically used for the firing of pottery using salt, these by their form (a catenary arch) tend to retain their shape over repeated heating and cooling cycles, whereas other types require extensive metalwork supports.
- Electric kilns - kilns operated by electricity were developed in the 20th century, primarily for smaller scale use such as in schools, universities, and hobby centers. The atmosphere in most designs of electric kiln is rich in oxygen, as there is no open flame to consume oxygen molecules. However, reducing conditions can be created with appropriate gas input, or by using saggars in a particular way.
- Feller kiln brought contemporary design to wood firing by re-using unburnt gas from the chimney to heat intake air before it enters the firebox. This leads to an even shorter firing cycle and less wood consumption. This design requires external ventilation to prevent the in-chimney radiator from melting, being typically in metal. The result is a very efficient wood kiln firing one cubic meter of ceramics with one cubic meter of wood.
- Microwave assisted firing - this technique combine microwave energy with more conventional energy sources, such as radiant gas or electric heating, to process ceramic materials to the required high temperatures. Microwave-assisted firing offers significant economic benefits.
- Noborigama kiln - the Noborigama is an evolution from Anagama design as a multi-chamber kiln, usually built on a slope, where wood is stacked from the front firebox at first, then only through the side-stoking holes with the benefit of having air heated up to 600 °C from the front firebox, enabling more efficient firings.
- The Sèvres kiln was invented in Sèvres, France and efficiently generated high-temperatures (1280 °C) to produce waterproof ceramic bodies and easy-to-obtain glazes. It features a down-draft design that produces high temperature in shorter time, even with wood-firing. The bourry box kiln is similar.
- Top-hat kiln - an intermittent kiln of a type sometimes used to fire pottery. The ware is set on a refractory hearth, or plinth, over which a box-shaped cover is lowered.
A variety of wood drying kiln technologies exist today: conventional, dehumidification, solar, vacuum and radio frequency.
Conventional wood dry kilns (Rasmussen, 1988) are either package-type (sideloader) or track-type (tram) construction. Most hardwood lumber kilns are sideloader kilns in which fork trucks are used to load lumber packages into the kiln. Most softwood lumber kilns are track types in which lumber packages are loaded on kiln/track cars for loading the kiln.
Modern high-temperature, high-air-velocity conventional kilns can typically dry 1-inch-thick (25 mm) green lumber in 10 hours down to a moisture content of 18%. However, 1-inch-thick green Red Oak requires about 28 days to dry down to a moisture content of 8%.
Heat is typically introduced via steam running through fin/tube heat exchangers controlled by on/off pneumatic valves. Less common are proportional pneumatic valves or even various electrical actuators. Humidity is removed via a system of vents, the specific layout of which are usually particular to a given manufacturer. In general, cool dry air is introduced at one end of the kiln while warm moist air is expelled at the other. Hardwood conventional kilns also require the introduction of humidity via either steam spray or cold water misting systems to keep the relative humidity inside the kiln from dropping too low during the drying cycle. Fan directions are typically reversed periodically to ensure even drying of larger kiln charges.
Most softwood lumber kilns operate below 240 °F (116 °C) temperature. Hardwood lumber kiln drying schedules typically keep the dry bulb temperature below 180 °F (82 °C). Difficult-to-dry species might not exceed 140 degrees F.
Dehumidification kilns are similar to other kilns in basic construction. Drying times are usually comparable. Heat comes primarily from an integral dehumidification unit that also removes humidity. Auxiliary heat is often provided early in the schedule, where the heat required may exceed the heat generated by the dehumidification unit.
Solar kilns are conventional kilns, typically built by hobbyists to keep initial investment costs low. Heat is provided via solar radiation, while internal air circulation is typically passive.
Newer wood drying technologies have included the use of reduced atmospheric pressure to attempt to speed up the drying process. A variety of vacuum technologies exist, varying primarily in the method heat is introduced into the wood charge. Hot water platten vacuum kilns use aluminum heating plates with the water circulating within as the heat source, and typically operate at significantly reduced absolute pressure. Discontinuous and SSV (super-heated steam) use atmosphere to introduce heat into the kiln charge. Discontinuous technology allows the entire kiln charge to come up to full atmospheric pressure, the air in the chamber is then heated, and finally vacuum is pulled. SSV run at partial atmospheres (typically around 1/3 of full atmospheric pressure) in a hybrid of vacuum and conventional kiln technology (SSV kilns are significantly more popular in Europe where the locally harvested wood is easier to dry versus species found in North America). RF/V (radio frequency + vacuum) kilns use microwave radiation to heat the kiln charge, and typically have the highest operating cost due to the heat of vaporization being provided by electricity rather than local fossil fuel or waste wood sources.
Valid economic studies of different wood drying technologies are based on the total energy, capital, insurance/risk, environmental impacts, labor, maintenance, and product degrade costs for the task of removing water from the wood fiber. These costs (which can be a significant part of plant costs) involve the differential impact of the presence of drying equipment in a specific plant. An example of this is that every piece of equipment (in a lumber manufacturing plant) from the green trimmer to the infeed system at the planer mill is the "drying system". Since thousands of different types of wood products manufacturing plants exist around the globe, and may be integrated (lumber, plywood, paper, etc.) or stand alone (lumber only), the true costs of the drying system can only be determined when comparing the total plant costs and risks with and without drying.
The total (harmful) air emissions produced by wood kilns, including their heat source, can be significant. Typically, the higher the temperature the kiln operates at, the larger amount of emissions are produced (per pound of water removed). This is especially true in the drying of thin veneers and high-temperature drying of softwoods.
A two-story porcelain kiln with furnaces á alandier in Sèvres, France circa 1880
Drying kiln at the Ritter Mill site Hazel Creek (Great Smoky Mountains)
- Hamer, Frank and Janet. The Potter's Dictionary of Materials and Techniques. A & C Black Publishers, Limited, London, England, Third Edition 1991. ISBN 0-8122-3112-0.
- Smith, Ed. Dry Kiln Design Manual. J.E. Smith Engineering and Consulting, Blooming Grove, Texas. Available for purchase from author J.E. Smith
- M. Kornmann and CTTB, "Clay bricks and roof tiles, manufacturing and properties", Soc. industrie minérale, Paris,(2007) ISBN 2-9517765-6-X
- Rasmussen, E.F. (1988). Forest Products Laboratory, U.S. Department of Agriculture., ed. Dry Kiln Operators Manual. Hardwood Research Council.
For pottery kilns of middle Europe see:
Andreas Heege, Töpferöfen - Pottery kilns - Four de potiers. Die Erforschung frühmittelalterlicher bis neuzeitlicher Töpferöfen (6.-20. Jh.) in Belgien, den Niederlanden, Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz. Basler Hefte zur Archäologie 4. Basel 2007 (2008).
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