Decarbonising Heavy Industry: 2. Green Cement

Engineers on site

Cement is the binding agent for concrete, which is the core ingredient in all urban centers. That’s because it’s fire and water-resistant, can be moulded into any shape, is incredibly strong and durable and is cheap to produce. It does however have one enormous drawback:

“The cement industry alone is responsible for about a quarter of all industry CO2 emissions.” McKinsey1

So there’s the conundrum; it’s both incredibly useful, and unacceptably damaging.

How do you make cement?

To produce cement, you need essentially to go through two stages. First, you take raw materials, mostly limestone and clay, which you crush and then heat in a kiln to around 1450 degrees Celsius, in a process called calcination. What that produces is clinker.

This clinker is then added to gypsum and ground in a mill, and the result is cement (see graphic below). Add this to clay and water, and you get the concrete used in the vast majority of buildings constructed across the globe. And almost all the emissions that this process results in come from one thing:

“The production of clinker accounts for about 90 % of the CO2 emissions of cement.” World Bank Group2

Image by Pure Green Cement

What is green cement?

So the challenge is, to either change what you use to generate the heat needed to produce clinker. So that you significantly reduce, or eliminate the CO2 that results as waste. Or, you find something other than clinker to make cement with.

As is invariably the case, there’s no silver bullet that’s going to solve all this. Rather, there are a series of small but significant changes that, taken together, can significantly reduce the emissions produced making cement.

Indeed, between 1990-2020 the amount of CO2 produced by industries that rely on cement has gone down by a fifth. Which has been achieved by making the kilns used more efficient, by using cleaner energy sources to produce the heat, and by making cement using less clinker. The problem is,

“Cement production looks set to double over the next 20 years.” The Economist3

So, given that many of the operational measures to reduce CO2 emissions have already been implemented, we’re going to be relying increasingly on technology to continue those reductions.

CCUS – Carbon capture use and storage

One of the areas where technology is continuing to improve is around CCUS, where the CO2 is either captured and stored safely underground. Or gets recycled and used in the production of products such as plastics, glass and synthetic fuels.

Most exciting of all, it’s also begun being used to produce carbon-cured cement. By injecting the CO2 captured in making cement back into the process of producing it, you make the cement stronger. So there’s less of it required for whatever it is you’re constructing. According to McKinsey, that process today is used to sequester 5% of the CO2 produced. But improvements in technology could see that figure rise to 25-30% by 2050. 1

Cement producers have also started to use advanced analytics and AI to improve efficiencies in the heat profiles of their kilns. While others are experimenting with lower levels of limestone, and in finding further alternatives to clinker.

The move to green cement and green steel

What is certain is that anyone involved in either producing cement, or in using it for what they do, is going to have to focus increasingly on moving from traditional to green cement. Because the pressures to decarbonize, from society, customers, investors and governments, are only going to increase as we move towards the 2030s and 2040s.

Many of the U.S. states, the U.K. and Canadian governments and the EU are all introducing increasingly stringent conditions for companies looking to do business within their borders. So unless there’s a significant move to both green cement and green steel, companies will find it impossible to comply with the conditions being demanded of them there.

Obviously, the industry that this will have the most impact on is the engineering and construction sector, together with all of the ancillary industries associated with it. What that’s going to mean for firms bidding for business there is that their success will increasingly depend on their ability to manage their data. And on them being able to demonstrate their ESG metrics to anyone looking to see exactly what they’re doing to help us get to net zero.

And what that depends on is employing the right software solution. Your software will gather all of that data together and allow you to visualize those ESG metrics in the form of graphs and Gantt charts. While simultaneously ensuring that all that data are kept permanently up to date, and in real time.

Nor is this restricted to companies working in engineering and construction. Any enterprise organization that relies on steel and or cement, and that’s pretty much the whole of manufacturing, is going to have to make that move to green cement and steel.

Because what seems increasingly clear is that companies that are incapable of demonstrating how seriously they take their ESG responsibilities will end up being ‘shamed’. In much the same way that companies working in the tobacco industry were half a century ago, and those in the oil, gas and mining industries have been over the last few decades.

And that kind of reputational damage will sink a company. So taking charge of your data, and being able to demonstrate your ESG credentials, is not an optional extra. It’s absolutely fundamental. And to be able to do so, you’ll need the right software solution.

Find out more about Cora’s software solution for manufacturing

Sources

  1. Laying the foundation for zero-carbon cement McKinsey & Co., May 2020
  2. Strengthening Sustainability in the Cement Industry, IFC Manufacturing, Agribusiness & Services
  3. How cement may yet help slow global warming The Economist, Nov 2021

Image: Pure Green Cement

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