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Editorial comment

The internal combustion engine (ICE) is a venerable technology: the first successful ICE was developed by Étienne Lenoir around 1859, while the first modern ICE was created by Nikolaus Otto in 1876. Today, however, the ICE poses an environmental challenge. According to the European Environment Agency, road transport emissions were responsible for 17.5% of overall greenhouse gas emissions in European countries. In the US, 28% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the transport sector, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, of which the “majority [result] from the combustion of petroleum-based products […] in internal combustion engines”.

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Because of this, many carmakers have been pumping cash into the development of electric vehicles (EVs): Volkswagen for example is spending up to E80 billion on building a giant fleet of EVs and the accompanying charging network. Yet one carmaker is staking its future on next-generation ICEs. Mazda’s Skyactive-X generation of ICEs is part of the Japanese company’s ambitious strategy to reduce wheel-to-wheel emissions to 90% of 2010 levels by 2050. By then, its ICEs will be advanced and efficient enough to equal EVs’ emissions levels.

This might seem a tall order, but Mazda has already shown it can be successful: in the span of less than eight years, Mazda cut its wheel-to-wheel emissions levels by 30% without resorting to hybrid vehicles of EVs. In other words, Mazda is showing that dramatic improvement can come through Incremental improvements to existing technology: it does not have to rely on big-bang panacean technological breakthroughs.

What lesson in this for the cement industry? In one of our regular World Cement LinkedIn Group discussions, we recently asked about the value of incremental improvements to process. The tone was generally positive. The cement industry is full of plants built decades ago, representing huge sunk investment. These plants represent the “low-hanging fruit” in terms of reducing the industry’s environmental impact. Incremental improvement to these older plants to best available technology could greatly improve the industry’s sustainability – without the risk of investing large-scale CAPEX.

Elements of the process ripe for improvement include the optimisation of raw material quality through better quarrying techniques, improving grinding efficiency, implementing remote monitoring and predictive maintenance techniques, raising use of alternative fuels (+ the use of renewables), and ensuring plant personnel are properly trained and supported by process experts. Perhaps you have additional ideas – and we would be happy to hear them. Head over to our LinkedIn Group to join the discussion.