What will cement look like by the end of the 21st century?

5 minute read

There is a change building worldwide in and through the cement industry. We are seeing a move to move concrete, the second largest used substance globally (superseded only by water), towards being a material that treads more lightly on our planet.

While cement production has historically tended to tick over without rapid changes, today we see the emergence of new forces in sustainability processes and technologies. In recent commentary on the BBC (Building’s hard problem – making concrete green, May 13, 2021) it was said:

A time-travelling Victorian stumbling upon a modern building site could largely get right to work, says Chris Thompson, managing director of Citu, which specialises in building low-carbon homes. That’s because many of the materials and tools would be familiar to him. The Victorian builder would certainly recognise concrete, which has been around for a long time. The world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome remains the one at Rome’s Pantheon, which is almost 2,000 years old. The Colosseum is largely concrete too.”

But in the pandemic-induced market of today, change is the constant, and it can be change for the better.

Looking to the future McKinsey & Company (September 16, 2020) put forward a vision of the cement plant of the 21st century stating, “The cement plant of the future will embrace digitisation and sustainability trends to earn a competitive advantage and build resilience. … the cement plant of the future will operate in a drastically different way than today’s plants.”

The consulting firm goes on to explore “a resilient, agile, green, and efficient plant as well as the business impact and strategic considerations that senior leaders should consider when determining the industry’s path forward.”

These projected dynamics of resilience, agility and resource consciousness are notable for us at Sephaku Cement because treading more lightly, and responsibly, has been at the core of our business strategy and operations. Sephaku cements have lower embodied CO2 as a result of a proportion of the clinker that forms the base cement being replaced by an alternative cementitious addition, and we are committed to realising less and less of a carbon footprint from the company.

Many of the futuristic moves being considered globally seek to create a future “cement plant that integrates the latest proven digital and sustainability technologies and practices[1]”.

Articulated in McKinsey’s vision is “the leading cement plant of 2030” that “achieves considerably lower operating costs and higher asset value through higher energy efficiency, yield, and throughput. More targeted and effective maintenance lengthens the lifetime of equipment. Each plant’s environmental footprint is minimised, securing its license to operate across locations and jurisdictions.”

“The plant meets customer demand by dynamically adjusting production and logistics according to real-time customer data,” it adds.

Such moves are of ultimate importance to counteract the reality that concrete accounts for around 8% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) being emitted into the atmosphere. From a ‘glass half full’ perspective this makes the industry a potentially massive changemaker through every effort to realise green change.  

It has been highlighted that some of the fundamentals of the modus operandi in the industry are being interrogated.

Speaking to the BBC, Karen Scrivener, a British academic and head of the construction materials laboratory at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne noted that one of the ways to lower the carbon footprint of the industry is “by replacing much of the conventional cement with heated clay and unburnt limestone.”

She explained that for a long time, people knew you could substitute some of the cement with ash from burning coal, or more recently, slag from blast furnaces. “This even improved concrete’s strength and durability.” Working with a Professor from Cuba who thought it might be possible to use clay in the production of concrete, the two academics found “a way to replace a really big chunk of conventional cement, and produce equally strong concrete.”

According to Professor Scrivener “not only would that mean 40% less CO2, it also works with existing equipment.”

There are other interesting areas of innovation that are moving towards brinks of breakthrough. These include Next Generation Instrumental Capabilities with advanced instrumentation being critical to development of data that informs modelling, which is critical to discover new and innovative cements and organic admixtures.  

3D printing of cement-based materials also has the potential to completely revolutionise construction. These next age of construction printing technologies are at the edge of transforming cities and homes from architectural planning to reduction of construction waste, through lower material usage and more precise control of material placement.  

Powered by Dangote Cement, our Sephaku team agree with the McKinsey projection, “In the cement plant of the future, value – not necessarily volume – is the key focus. Real-time, fact-based decision making is the norm, and continuous adjustments account for ecosystem variability. … Real-time information is available for managers remotely at all levels to make better decisions.”

“This future is not far off,” they state. They are right. It is at work in the Sephaku Cement plants.

 

[1] McKinsey & Company, The 21st  century cement plant: Greener and more connected