In this exclusive interview, Mr. Ahmed talks about the prospects on the current search of the cement industry for a “greener” - and more profitable - path

Osama Aly Ahmed, technical consultant

The cement sector has seen a major transformation towards a more sustainable and environmental concerned industry, since the clinker production process consumes heavy amounts of energy and emits large portions of CO2 to the atmosphere.

The future of the cement industry will largely be oriented towards energy efficiency not only to lower the companies’ carbon footprint, but also to lower production costs. Alternative fuels as biomass are part of this revolution, believes Osama Aly Ahmed, Technical Consultant and the Business Development Manager at Scientific Business Solution.

In this exclusive interview, Mr. Ahmed talks about the prospects on the current search of the cement industry for a “greener” - and more profitable - path.

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There is a concerted trend for cement companies to focus on innovation of eco-friendly products including zero-carbon cement and concrete. Currently, there is significant focus on increasing the use of alternative fuels and evaluating technologies including carbon capture storage. Are those efforts enough or does the industry need to push further to ensure increasing compliance and adoption of these targets?

When we talk about cement industry, we should know there are more than 5,000 cement plants in the world and it is hard to put one rule for all companies due to differentiation between them.

We could divide cement companies to three main categories: international companies, which hold around 40 percent of world production and their efforts towards zero carbon must be studied and transmitted to other categories; regional cement companies, which acquired around 30 percent of the world production - and I think they are our target to adapt and increase its compliance; and local or single cement plants, which I think it will take long time, a concerted trend of single cement plants is the to be or not to be, it is a life matter to continue in the market.

In general, crucially in Europe, the awareness of using alternative fuels is rising, as well as the concern about the health of the population and the environment.

 

Which topics are the most relevant at present for research and development in the area of sustainability for the cement industry?

When we are talking about research and development, it is important to know who will receive this message. No single or regional cement plant care about research and development.

When we review the results of international companies, it is clear that they are concerned about finding the sustainability path in spite of market weakness. In general, many researches and pilot experiments are conducted, but nobody can seriously claim today exactly how a carbon-neutral concrete business sector will look like. Intelligence, boldness and effective implementation skills are required.

Let's bet on entrepreneurship of our sector and its ability to embrace the change. Both skills were repeatedly demonstrated in the past.

 

Is there a general consensus regarding the totality of investment the global cement industry is expected to make over the next decade in order to move towards a "greener" production process? On what “fronts” can we expect to see substantial investments to mitigate CO2 emissions?

I’m always asking myself this question. There are some critical issues that need to be addressed. One is to define clear by-laws including mission, activities, governance… Other are to adhere to international anti-trust guidelines, rely on companies recognized expertise to prepare arguments and gather data and facts, and coordinate with existing business associations and governing authorities.

Companies need to get involved at highest company level (Chairman, CEO, COO) and focus on limited number of priority issues with defined agenda, roadmaps and targets.

I think the totality of the investment will be reduced to minimum and engineering companies will show some flexibility with the future demand uprising.

Cement industry is more concerned about environmental issues

 

Which steps can cement companies implement to reduce their tangible environmental impact while meeting profitability expectations?

In the past, when cement companies from 1980 to 1990 had faced pollution, environment control has been focused on dust suppression. In the near future, it is likely to focus on control gas emissions. Future technology is also to be shaped accordingly to operational optimization and quality control statutory regulations related to environment control. The horizon of commercial usage of new technologies will be strongly influenced by cost return economics.

 

There are several strategies towards decarbonization, such as switching to lower-carbon fuels and advancing process and technology innovations such as CCS. What are the KPIs that can help management identify the most appropriate sustainable energy technologies for their company?

This answer requires an understanding of the future of the industry. Cement executives and companies’ top management know only financial KPIs, as growth in revenue or EBITDA, which reflect how much are they gained. It is very a good measurement for short term planning, but with long term it could be destructive and could increase the impact on the management that comes next.

Utilizing industry techniques to explore the new quest for quality allows cement producers to continually improve the quality of their output, while collecting usage and performance data either from products and equipment in the plant. This data becomes a vital source of information that forms the basis for product development and crucial business decisions.

I suggest some elements that can be configured to suit cement producers needs: the historical data collection with the ease of access, live data capturing via sensors, connectivity via communication protocols, integration with PLCs, and web-based dashboard for monitoring and analysis.

When we have seen these elements among cement production on daily routines, it is easy to find which other KPIs are following best practices. When we review KPIs related to decarbonization, we find Carbon Footprint, Energy Consumption, Product Recycling Rate, Supplier Environmental Sustainability Index, Supply Chain Miles, Water Footprint, Waste Reduction Rate, Waste Recycling Rate and others.

The KPIs I recommend to be watched, in order of importance, are: Energy consumption, Carbon footprint, and Waste reduction rate.

 

lower carbon footprint

 

What strategies (including lower-carbon fuels, carbon capture and storage, increased use of low clinker cement, fly ash, GGBFS etc.,) are compatible with a focus on reducing environmental impact while not compromising on product quality and remaining financially palatable?

I think the black horse in this competition is the increase use of low clinker cement. Techniques as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and utilization (CCU) are still the most significantly for the cement industry. Other solutions differ in its results, according the region.

An analysis of my selection, according to German results of replacing raw material of CEM1 by LC3, showed that CEM1 would require 7.1 million tons to be produced, which, when replacing it with LC3, would only require 3.7 million tons. This clinker will be replaced by 2.2 tons of clay, which contributes with a reduction of 2.22 million tons of CO2, representing 11 percent of the German cement industry emission reduction achievement.

 

What is the current level of the use of biomass as a source of energy in cement production? What is the maximum percentage of the total energy requirement that biomass could potentially contribute?

For the cement industry, the use of biomass as a source of energy is a dream for more than 70 percent of the producers due to the plenty of agriculture waste all over the world. But the low prices of coal still represent a big resistance for increasing usage of biomass.

A lot of cement producers are unaware how to utilize biomass in the industry, in addition to other problems related to collecting mechanisms, storage yards, society, government awareness and logistics.

As we know, the level of use of biomass among all energy forms, either traditional or renewables, is about 10 percent. This figure is very good, but when we define the percentage for the cement industry it will differ from place to place. Europe still acquires the biggest portion, around 25 to 30 percent, and some companies like CRH & Cemex reached the percentage of around 40 to 45 percent and more.

The worldwide rate of ALF & wastes usage is only around 7 percent of all thermal energy used in cement production. The growth rate up to 2025 is target to decrease 40 percent of net CO2 emission per ton of cement.

I do not worry about future of biomass in cement sector, because already there are a lot of modern technologies in East Asia for biomass and its replacement instead of fossil fuels it is matter of time.

There is no maximum percentage of total energy requirement that biomass could contribute. But I hope that we reach up to 25 percent worldwide.

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