Could CEMEX, a leading sustainable cement manufacturer, leverage new technologies to reduce the CO2 emissions of cement?

The cement industry accounts for ~5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which makes it one of the major global warming culprits! The improvement of manufacturing processes, introduction of zero cement structural concrete, and development of self-healing concrete could help Cemex to reduce its CO2 emissions even further.

What is the impact of CEMENT on the environment?

The cement industry accounts for ~5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (Rubenstein, 2012), which makes it one of the major global warming culprits! Cement is the primary ingredient in concrete, which is used to construct pretty much everything – houses, buildings, bridges, roads. In 2015, the global production capacity of cement totaled 3.75Btn/year distributed across 2,273 plants, concentrated in China, India, and US. The top 10 global cement manufacturers represented ~34% of all production (Saunders, 2015). In April 2016, CEMEX, the 5th largest global cement manufacturer, scored the highest ESG (environmental, social, and governance) disclosure by Bloomberg among its peers in the global cement industry (Freedonia Group , 2015). CEMEX has a strong environmental focus as demonstrated by the several sustainability awards it has received over its lifetime. However, with the global demand of cement expected to increase to 5.2Btn/year by 2019 (Cemex, 2015), could CEMEX, as a leader in environmental sustainability, adopt even more aggressive sustainability goals, such as becoming CO2 neutral or even negative by leveraging or introducing new materials while meeting such a high demand?

Where exactly does the CO2 in this case comes from?

The CO2 emissions of cement come from two sources – raw materials and manufacturing process. Over 60% of CO2 emissions are generated during the de-carbonation of limestone into lime and the rest through the burning of fossil fuels to heat the raw materials in the cement kiln (Maximpact News, 2015).

cement-process

So what has CEMEX done so far?

CEMEX has continuously worked towards improving its operational efficiencies in order to reduce its negative environmental impact by focusing on major impact areas, such as raw materials and CO2 emissions.

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However, CEMEX should revise its targets based on its current operating performance to drive further improvements. For instance, the CO2 and alternative fuels targets have not changed since 2006. The company also does not have a target for alternative raw material, which is concerning given the future expected scarcity of natural resources. CEMEX’s performance across major environmental KPIs is within competitors’ range but it has an opportunity to improve.

What else could CEMEX do?

As customers become more environmentally conscious, raw materials become scarce, and competition intensifies, application of new technologies may significantly contribute to CEMEX’ competitiveness while driving sustainability. New technologies could improve cement’s manufacturing process or decrease its usage in repairs.

Roland Pellenq, an MIT senior scientist, argues that “reducing the ratio of calcium to silicate in cement would enhance the strength of the material, reduce material volume, and cut the emissions associated with concrete by more than half” (Pyper, 2014). His 2015 findings conclude that the “magical ratio” is 1.5 parts of calcium to silica versus the industry accepted standard of 1.7 parts (conventional range: 1.2 to 2:2) would result on a positive impact on emissions, as much as 60%. CEMEX could certainly stand to benefit from this research if they currently follow the industry accepted standard to produce their cement products.

CEMEX could also introduce alternative materials for renovation projects. For instance, the David Ball Group PLC (DBG) launched in 2015 the first zero cement structural concrete, Cemfree. DBG claims that Cemfree is more durable than regular cement, is strong enough to be used in structural applications, and reduces CO2 up to 95% in comparison to regular cement (World Cement, 2015). However, Cemfree contains ground granulated blast furnace slag (GGBS), which is a byproduct of the blastfurnaces manufacturing iron for steel making. Therefore, the availability of raw material is limited, which means that Cemfree can’t completely replace regular cement but it can help to decrease cement output.

CEMEX could commercialize self-healing concrete, which would minimize overall number of repair projects. Researches from the School of Engineering at the University of Cardiff, in Wales, are testing a collection of self-healing concrete technologies through a project called Materials for Life (M4L). Their ultimate goal is to create autonomous infrastructure that can repair themselves without human intervention (Cardiff University, 2015). M4L is currently testing three types of self-healing concreate on a road improvement scheme in South Wales:

  1. A concrete that uses shape shifting materials, known as shape-memory polymers, activated when heated by a small current
  2. A concrete with healing agents made from organic and inorganic material pumped through a network of thin tunnels
  3. A concrete with capsules, or lightweight aggregates, that contain bacteria and healing agents. When the capsules break the nutrients will enable the bacteria to produce calcium carbonate, which would help to repair the concrete

While some of above recommendations may result in sales cannibalization, they would also produce new revenue streams for CEMEX with an even greater positive environmental impact. CEMEX has set a great example for other cement companies to follow but should continue to push the boundaries of what is possible to remain a sustainability leader. Doing so would help CEMEX to set even more aggressive sustainability goals, which could become the new industry standards.

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References

Cardiff University. (2015, October 28). UK’s first trial of self-healing concrete. Retrieved from Cardiff University: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/152733-uks-first-trial-of-self-healing-concrete

Cemex. (2015, April). Sustainable Development. Retrieved from Cemex.com: http://www.cemex.com/SustainableDevelopment/Awards.aspx

Freedonia Group . (2015, August 28). World Cement to 2019. Retrieved from Market Research: http://www.rnrmarketresearch.com/world-cement-to-2019-market-report.html

Maximpact News. (2015, December 24). Cement CEO’s Rise to the Climate Challenge. Retrieved from Maximpact Blog: http://maximpactblog.com/cement-ceos-rise-to-the-climate-challenge/

Pyper, J. (2014, September 26). New Formula Could Cut Pollution from Concrete. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-formula-could-cut-pollution-from-concrete/

Rubenstein, M. (2012, May 9). Emissions from the Cement Industry. Retrieved from State of the Planet, Earth Institute: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/05/09/emissions-from-the-cement-industry/

Saunders, A. (2015, December 1). The top 100 global cement companies and global per capita capacity trends. Retrieved from Global Cement: http://www.globalcement.com/magazine/articles/964-preview-the-top-100-global-cement-companies-and-global-per-capita-capacity-trends

World Cement. (2015, January 30). Zero cement structural concrete offers opportunity not threat. Retrieved from World Cement: https://www.worldcement.com/europe-cis/30012015/zero-cement-structural-concrete-article/

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3 thoughts on “Could CEMEX, a leading sustainable cement manufacturer, leverage new technologies to reduce the CO2 emissions of cement?

  1. Great read! I’m surprised that as a chemical engineer, I never stopped to think that even the material that makes up our houses and roads and that is so ubiquitous could be such a huge contributor to global carbon dioxide. The unsettling thing I think is also, because it is everywhere and is so necessary, it is kind of like oil and gas, in that there doesn’t seem to be a good enough alternative to completely replace either.
    In the scorecard provided, it seems that an external observe has graded CEMEX to have made small improvements to those carbon-related metrics, however the improvements are within range. What incentive does CEMEX have to continue improving its operations to become cleaner and greener? Is the cement industry in the radar of environmental agencies or regulators?If the company’s fuel usage targets have not changed since 2006, it seems to me that the sustainability goals within the company are perhaps not being prioritized as much in recent times. Do you think this will change?

  2. Thanks Alonso! This is actually quite fascinating! It’s great to see that CEMEX is actually doing something to reduce it’s contribution to climate change but kind of disappointing that their targets are not regularly updated to facilitate even more reductions in emissions. The ideas on alternative material such as cemfree and the self healing concrete are so cool – to think that repairs to cement structures can happen without any human intervention blows my mind!
    Having done further research, I learned that CEMEX was selected by the US Department of Energy in 2009 to develop carbon capture and sequestration technology to aid in the reduction of CO2 emissions. I haven’t seen much publicity around this, especially since it is such a big deal. What do you think the tradeoffs are between this program and the ideas listed in your post? Why invest in cemfree or self healing concrete if these things could potentially cannibalize their primary cement business?

  3. Great article! Very happy you bring this topic up, actually, as I think that the cement industry is one of the most under-regulated industries when it comes to emission target and reduction policies – given the incredible impact that this single industry has on overall worldwide emissions.
    I loved how you have worked out the problems around their targets and I couldn’t agree more with Lady’s previous post around the disappointment that they are not setting themselves more aspirational targets.
    I fully agree with you that much more needs to be happen in the cement industry. Having worked for LafargeHolcim, I could experience myself that internally not a lot of emphasis is put on sustainability or an aggressive reduction in emissions. Especially as the industry is currently under such cost pressure, no single cement player is willing to make the first push to establish themselves as sustainability leader due to fear of losing cost competitiveness. Thus, I am wondering if maybe governments will need to play a stronger role in enforcing rules & guidelines that will apply to all players to not distort the overall industry structure.

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