Although the cement industry is one of the largest emitters of CO2 globally, it has also been leading investments to develop products with a low carbon footprint
Cement is the essential component of concrete and an indispensable part of our everyday life. However, the industry is also very energy-intensive and together with steel and chemicals accounts for a quarter of all industrial emissions. Furthermore, as a standalone, the industry accounts for 7 percent of overall global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
According to CW Research Global Cement Volume Forecast Report (GCVFR), cement demand is expected to increase to 6.7 billion tons by 2050. With that, investors and cement companies have been shifting their production towards more sustainable processes to achieve net-zero production.
This initiative is in line with the roadmap developed by the members of the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA), which brings together 80 percent of the global cement industry volume outside of China to define what is low carbon cement.
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What is low-carbon cement?
On average, each ton of cement produced emits over 0.5 tons of CO2. In cement production, limestone is put into a fossil fuel-fired kiln, including coal, petroleum coke, and other polluting fuels, then heated to near 1,500°C to produce clinker, cement’s core ingredient. Fossil fuels are typically used to heat the kiln accounting for approximately 40 percent of direct CO2 emissions of the clinker production process.
Therefore, a cementitious product that uses less clinker or that substitutes coal-fired power with renewable energy will have a lower carbon footprint and become a low carbon product.
The IEA and CSI’s 2018 Technology Roadmap points to action on four mitigation levers: energy efficiency, alternative fuels, clinker substitution, and innovative technologies, including carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS). The goal is to achieve CO2 reductions consistent with at least a 50 percent chance of limiting the average global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.
Despite being challenging from an economic point of view, companies committed to the Technology Roadmap are investing in low-carbon cement production, utilizing clinker substitutes, and increasing the use of alternative fuels.
In addition, companies are investing in innovation and technology to develop alternatives to Portland cement while also increasingly focusing on developing infrastructure for CCUS.
Startups receive robust investment to develop CO2 reduction solutions
Startups have been receiving robust funding to develop solutions to lower the cement industry’s carbon footprint. Alberta-based CarbonCure Technologies and California-based CarbonBuilt both won USD 7.5 million each of the Carbon Xprize.
The Carbon Xprize was created by U.S. power company NRG and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance to boost the development of technologies that can capture carbon dioxide and put it to valuable use.
Both companies have been recently signing agreements to expand markets and fast-track materials and technology development. CarbonCure announced on October 1, 2021, a new partnership with US-based Astec Industries to scale its low-carbon concrete technology worldwide and expand product distribution in North America. Presently, its sustainable concrete technology has been installed in about 400 concrete plants globally.
CarbonBuilt signed an agreement with Master Builders Solutions to make new and better admixtures for low carbon concrete technology. The CarbonBuilt Reversa process uses carbon dioxide to optimize Portland cement content in mix designs and improve finished concrete performance. New admixtures developed together with Master Builders Solutions aim to extend the CarbonBuilt Reversa technology from gray concrete block to a wide range of dry- and wet-cast manufactured concrete products.
Ireland-based Ecocem, which is focused on producing high-performance types of cement, received a USD 25.1 million equity investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) and Breakthrough Energy Ventures-Europe (BEV-E).
This will enable it to bring new ultra-low-carbon types of cement to the market in the coming years through slag-based processes and the incorporation of new materials and technologies. In October 2021, the company opened an innovation center in Paris, France, to accelerate decarbonization in the cement and construction industries.
This year, in February, building materials giant Cemex also announced an investment in a clean hydrogen production startup called HiiROC through Cemex Ventures. HiiROC has developed a technology that uses thermal plasma electrolysis to convert biomethane, flare gas, or natural gas into hydrogen less expensively than competing solutions and without a CO2 footprint.
Changing towards a cleaner power generation
Another approach to decarbonizing the cement industry, which has been receiving significant investment, is clean power generation, including solar and wind-powered energy plants.
Cemex recently disclosed that it has successfully connected the clinker production process with Synhelion’s solar receiver, taking an important initial step to develop fully solar-driven cement plants. The Synhelion and CEMEX R&D teams set up a pilot batch production unit to produce clinker from concentrated solar radiation installed at the Very High Concentration Solar Tower of IMDEA Energy, in Spain. Synhelion’s solar receiver delivers record-breaking temperatures reaching beyond 1,500°C, in a research project currently in progress.
In India, Amp Energy India commissioned a 13.5 MW solar power project for Orient Cement in Maharashtra. Orient Cement signed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with Amp Energy India for the procurement of solar power for 25 years. The project will help Orient Cement reduce about 15,595 tons of CO2 emissions per annum.
In Saudi Arabia, Qassim Cement is studying the viability of setting up a 30-MW solar plant at its site in the northcentral city of Buraydah. The electricity generated by the plant aims to reduce carbon emissions and electricity costs.
Lafarge Canada announced in the second half of 2021 that it had entered into a Purchase Power Agreement (PPA) with TransAlta Corporation for the supply of 100 GWh/year of wind power to its Exshaw cement plant. The PPA will cover 25 percent of Exshaw’s energy demands, depending on actual production volumes in 2022 and 2023.
Another technology used to lower companies’ CO2 footprint is the waste heat recovery (WHR) plant. In Germany, Cemex Zement partnered with sustainable technology supplier Orcan Energy to establish a waste heat recovery (WHR) plant at its Rüdersdorf cement plant, in Brandenburg. Expected to be commissioned in mid-2022, the WHR plant will cover part of the plant’s energy consumption. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy contributed 50 percent of the funds for the project.
Buzzi Unicem, in Italy, is developing with Italgas a feasibility study on the implementation of power-to-gas plants, in combination with Carbon Capture Systems (CCS). The study will assess the possibility of producing and using synthetic methane obtained from the combination of green hydrogen produced by the power-to-gas plants with part of the CO2 released in the production processes.
Greener fuels for cement kilns
In terms of fuels, cement manufacturers are also trying different fuel mixes to feed cement kilns that have a lower impact on the environment, by using a circular economy approach.
Italy's Cementerie Gubbio, for example, received in the second half of 2021 an updated Integrated Environmental Authorization (AIA) to use Secondary-combustible Solid Fuel (CSS-C) derived from recovery operations of urban waste and special non-hazardous waste. The Secondary Solid Fuel-Fuel (CSS-C) will be used in partial replacement (45 percent) of petroleum coke or coal.
In Canada, the St. Mary’s Cement plant, owned by Brazil-based Votorantim Cimentos, announced that it intends to seek permission from the provincial government to use a different fuel mix. The company wants to use alternative low-carbon fuels (ALCF) to supplement the regular fuel mix of coal, natural gas, and petroleum coke. These alternative materials include "biomass, wood from construction and demolition and non-recyclable paper and plastics.”
Investment in carbon capture technologies on the rise
A newer, but more challenging technology that integrates the cement industry’s path towards decarbonization is the deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage/Use (CCSU). Many companies have been trialing the technology, which is yet to reach economic viability and industrial scale. CCSU is also receiving attention from several governments and entities, which have been supporting research across the globe.
For example, seven projects were selected for funding by the innovation fund of the European Green Pact and will share USD 1.2 billion in European subsidies. The fund has been endowed with USD 11.1 billion over ten years, from the European carbon trading system. In terms of cement, in France, the construction materials manufacturer Eqiom was selected for its CO2 capture project at its Lumbres cement plant in Pas-de-Calais, to reduce emissions by 90 percent.
Industry giants, including Holcim, are also developing several initiatives. The latest announcements involve projects in Italy and Spain. In Italy, in partnership with Eni, the company is planning to use carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and mineralization technology to design a new material used in its green cement. In Spain, LafargeHolcim Spain, Carbon Clean, and Sistemas de Calor announced the creation of ECCO2, a joint venture for the development of an advanced technology CO2 capture plant at the Carboneras cement factory, in Almería. The plant is expected to come online in early 2023.
In Germany, a different technology is in the process of being implemented. Cool Planet Technologies and the Helmholtz Center Hereon have signed an agreement with Holcim Deutschland to establish a CO2 separation plant based on Hereon's PolyActive membrane technology to be built at Holcim's cement plant in Höver. The objective of the plant operation is to demonstrate performance, economy, and operational behavior on a large scale, and trial operations are scheduled to start in the first quarter of 2022.
In the UK, the HyNet North West cluster will receive Track 1 backing under the government’s carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS) cluster sequencing process.
Located in the region, Hanson (part of HeidelbergCement) has its Padeswood cement works plant where the company is already carrying out a CCS feasibility study.
Vicat Cement is also developing CCS projects. In collaboration with Hynamics, the company aims to develop an integrated solution for capturing CO2 and producing carbon-free methanol, a project which is currently being evaluated by the European Commission. The project aims to capture 40 percent of the CO2 emitted by Vicat’s Montalieu-Vercieu cement plant, in eastern France.
New technologies in cement products to lower carbon footprint
New technologies that aim to establish a green construction approach are also being adopted in the production of cementitious products. LafargeHolcim, in the United States, announced that some cement plants, including Ste. Genevieve (Missouri), Alpena (Michigan), and Midlothian (Texas) have transitioned to OneCem Portland limestone cement (PLC) production. Portland limestone cement has a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the production of Ordinary Portland cement.
Graphene has also been tested as a cement additive with a decarbonization potential. The latest investment in this field came from a consortium of First Graphene and partners including the construction materials group Breedon, which has secured a UK grant to develop graphene-enhanced low-carbon cement. The grant was awarded by the UK Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK. The cement additive PureGRAPH enhances products’ strength, reducing the need for clinker additives.
Also, Finland-based Betolar has started producing low-carbon cement by using alternative industrial waste products in a process that reduces CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent. The company launched Geoprime, an alkali-activated material that can be mixed with waste from a variety of industries to replace cement in the production of concrete.
Waste is also part of the solution for Levenseat Limited and Organic Innovative Solutions Limited. The companies are setting up a 50/50 joint venture named Innovative Ash Solutions for the production of lower-carbon cement from landfills. The joint venture has been awarded USD 666,000 by Zero Waste Scotland’s Circular Economy Investment Fund. It will be set up a new site near Lanark, South Lanarkshire, to create a sustainable form of pulverized fuel ash (PFA), a key ingredient in cement. The industrial-scale facility will be able to process 20,000 tons of incineration fly, cyclone, and boiler ash to create the PFA. The production facility is due to be commissioned by the end of 2022.
Another company that has eliminated the clinker factor is Hoffmann Green Cement, which launched H-IONA, its fourth low-carbon technology at the end of 2021. It has a carbon footprint of fewer than 150 kilograms per metric ton. This cement primarily consists of ground furnace slag and calcium sulfate, and it was granted CE marking.
Lastly, Vicat has also invested in a process that aims to reduce the clinker factor. In the fall of 2021, the company started the construction of a clay calcination unit on its Xeuilley site, in the south of Nancy, France. The project has an investment value of USD 43.7 million, including USD 14 million financed within the framework of the relaunch of the decarbonization fund for the industry in France. The new equipment is expected to result in the Lorraine cement plant reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent when it is commissioned in 2023.
Cement manufacturers are facing a crucial moment. But, with the right mindset, the companies can be decisive with the evolution of the construction industry towards a circular, greener industry. As climate and business pressures increase, innovation and new business models are essential to ensure a profitable and more sustainable future.