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At the cutting edge

Published by , Deputy Editor
World Cement,

Aniruddha Sharma, Carbon Clean, explains how carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology in the cement industry could be the key to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Cement is the main raw material used to create concrete, the most widely used man made material in the world. Tonne for tonne, its use is twice that of steel, wood, plastics and aluminium combined, and for good reason; it is durable, safe and strong. And yet, cement also accounts for around 8% of global CO2 emissions. To put this into perspective, if cement were a nation, it would be the third-highest CO2 emitter after China and the US. Clearly something needs to be done to decarbonise the industry, but it is a complex challenge that will take time to solve.

It is encouraging, however, that the cement industry has recognised the challenge and decided to act. Several manufacturers have pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050, or sooner. Recently, LafargeHolcim went one step further, becoming the first building materials company to have its targets approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). Others are likely to swiftly follow suit. Naturally, commitments to net zero come alongside questions. The most prevalent is often: how? How can an industry that accounts for 8% of global CO2 neutralise its emissions? And, how can this be possible in only 30 years or less?

The answer is not straightforward. Long-term, it will require the brightest minds to work together, innovating to progress the development of sustainable cement. While there is not going to be a carbon-neutral production mechanism overnight, there are short-term steps that will have a meaningful impact.

Carbon capture

One of these steps should be accelerating the widespread rollout of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). CCUS has a significant role to play in helping hard-to-abate industries to decarbonise. According to the IEA Energy Technology Perspective report 2020, achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is impossible without CCUS. By the year 2050, CCUS is forecast to prevent over 5.5 billion tpy CO2 emissions annually.

Carbon Clean, the UK’s largest CCUS start-up, is focused on helping heavy industry to decarbonise. The company works with cement manufacturers, refineries & petrochemical plants, steel producers and energy from waste facilities – sectors that are vital and not easily replaced. Carbon Clean has fuelled development across the globe – development which is still sought by an ever-growing population. ‘Industry’ collectively contributes one-quarter of global CO2 emissions. This has not gone unnoticed. The majority of the western world saw climate protests in 2019. Even in a year severely impacted by COVID-19, 2020 has still seen protestors take to the streets demanding action on climate change. While a minority were directed at heavy industry, the protests have led to an increasingly vocal investment community too. Investors are now threatening to divest from companies who do not comply with their environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles.

CCUS can help those operating in hard-to-abate industries to get ahead of the curve. By removing residual emissions, the process can achieve capture rates of more than 90%, bringing emitters closer in line with the demands of their institutional investors.

A solution

It is acknowledged that CCUS is critical in ensuring affordable, sustainable and comprehensive decarbonisation of economies. Currently, there are 16 CCUS projects in advanced stages of planning that have the potential to capture over 20 million tpy of CO2. In 2016, Carbon Clean partnered with Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals, rolling out the world’s first low-cost industrial CCUS plant in India. The plant was designed to capture 60 000 tpy of CO2 and convert it into green soda ash (an ingredient found in commercial household products), driving down the total net cost of carbon capture.

Since then, CCUS has become much more widespread; there were 14 large scale CCUS facilities under construction in 2019 alone. So far, Europe has led the way, with Germany being the biggest market for CO2 capture, – contributing US$110 billion to the overall US$303.6 billion valuation of the European CO2 market.

Several industry heavyweights are leading this change – Carbon Clean works with LafargeHolcim, CEMEX and Dalmia, and outside of the cement industry, Chevron, Equinor and Marubeni. Through its work, the company has built up a deep understanding of how to reduce the cost of CCUS and scale it. It is now scaling its solution at pace throughout the cement industry – incorporating learnings from other sectors such as waste management, petrochemicals and steel production, to name a few.

Applying the technology to the cement sector

Cement production is extremely carbon intensive. Carbon dioxide is released when cement kilns cook green limestone with sand and clay at a high heat through:

  • Burning biomass or coal to generate the heat.
  • Calcination (releasing gas when heating limestone), which accounts for 70% of sector emissions.

Positively, this means that the majority of emissions gather in the exhaust of cement plants, making it easy to capture carbon. In fact, around 90% of the CO2 produced through cement production can be captured and stored. This was witnessed first-hand through Carbon Clean’s partnership with Dalmia. Last year, the company agreed to start developing a large-scale 500 000 tpy carbon capture facility at Dalmia’s cement plant in Tamil Nadu, India. It is an ambitious project and is one of the industry’s first large-scale demonstrations of carbon capture in action.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing widespread uncertainty this year, a growing appetite for CCUS technology is noticeable. In September, Carbon Clean announced its partnership with CEMEX, agreeing to collaboratively develop technology for the industry, aiming to bring the cost of CO2 capture down to US$30/t and reduce the size of the equipment required. A reduction in the cost would make it more feasible for many cement producers to integrate carbon capture technology. The new technology will be tested at a CEMEX facility in 2021. Carbon Clean has also announced a partnership with LafargeHolcim, helping the business expand its CCUS output. The project is based at LafargeHolcim’s cement plant in Carboneras (Almeria, Spain). It aims to capture CO2 emitted through the cement production process, transforming it into a material that can be reused by local farmers. Through increasing farm efficiency, the technology has the potential to achieve complete (100%) decarbonisation of the plant.

It is clear that carbon capture is possible and successful in the cement industry, so why is it not used more widely?

Current roadblocks

The biggest obstacle to overcome is the cost of capture. The costs are coming down as Carbon Clean scales-up and builds stronger supply chains. Using state-of-the-art technology, the average cost of capture is around US$65 per t, which for some of the company’s customer projects that are seeking to capture up to 700 000 tpy of carbon, is unfeasible. This is why work is underway to reduce the cost of capture and is getting it closer to US$30/t, which is hoped to be achieved by 2021.

Alongside working to further develop and evolve the technology to bring down the cost, governments and policy makers have a role to play in helping overcome this obstacle. Carbon credits and carbon taxes offer carrots and sticks to spur companies on to the journey to net zero. As shareholders demand that businesses decarbonise, whilst also demanding the payment of a dividend, it is not an easy balance for many industrial businesses to achieve. Therefore, carbon credits can be seen as important to the energy transition.

A collaborative effort between industry and government

Carbon Clean is engaging and working with governments to help accelerate decarbonisation. Fortunately, it is in government’s interest to act – during the most severe lockdown period induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, global emissions dropped between 10 – 30%. The lockdown has made people think about the world that they want to see at the end of this crisis. This has been backed up by action. Europe, in particular, has taken serious steps towards supporting a transition to net zero through the European Green Deal and €1 billion in CCUS funding detailed in the European Development Fund. As a company backed by the British government since 2012, Carbon Clean is optimistic that CCUS development will see further governmental support in the UK as well.

Of course, as many look to cast ‘heroes and villains’ in the climate change debate, it is important to remember that policy is not formed overnight and is rarely formed without external influence. In the cement industry, efforts have been seen from the European Cement Association on the European Commission, pushing for meaningful change in circular economy policy to adequately reflect the contribution that the industry is making. The industry must channel the same spirit with regards to climate change.

It has been proven that CCUS works. The technology has the potential to reduce 90% of plant emissions – for the sake of the planet, the time to implement it is now. The cement industry has a two-factor role to play in this: firstly, by partnering and continuing to invest in the latest CCUS technology, and secondly, by working with governments to enact mutually beneficial, meaningful change. CCUS on its own will not achieve net zero, but it certainly has a key role to play in the energy transition.

About the author

Aniruddha Sharma is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Carbon Clean, a London headquartered, global leader in low-cost carbon CO2 capture. He has led the company since it was founded in 2009 and works to further the development of carbon capture, aiming to drive the cost down to US$30/t.

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