Putting our energies into carbon-cutting research

The UK concrete and cement industries have already worked hard to make significant strides in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and are committed to playing a vital role in meeting the UK’s ambition of net zero carbon by 2050.

Cement, a key ingredient of concrete, in the UK produces less than 1.5 per cent of UK carbon emissions against an average of 7-8 per cent worldwide. 

In fact, the industry has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing by 30 per cent since 1990, and as a whole is decarbonising faster than the UK economy. But we’re not complacent and know there’s still much more to do in the transition to net zero. 

Fuel use is the second largest emitting source in cement manufacture. Which is why it’s so exciting that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has awarded the Mineral Products Association (MPA) more than £6 million to carry out globally ground-breaking fuel switching trials into hydrogen, biomass and plasma technology and their potential to reduce the current reliance on fossil fuels.

Cement manufacture is a fuel and electricity intensive process that requires very high temperatures (over 1,450ºC) to heat the raw materials – principally limestone and clay. During heating, the raw material mixture becomes molten and is then cooled to produce ‘clinker’, which is then ground with other materials such as gypsum to produce cement.

UK cement manufacturers have already invested millions of pounds in fuel switching from coal and petcoke to the use of waste biomass and waste part-biomass fuels. But around 57 per cent of the heat needed to make clinker still comes from traditional fossil fuel energy sources such as coal.

The trials will test the potential and feasibility of the hydrogen and plasma technologies and fuel mixes at Tarmac and Hanson Cement sites, with two demonstrations – one of electrical plasma energy and biomass fuel, and the other of hydrogen and biomass energy. 

Also part of the MPA’s innovation programme is a British Lime Association production trial, which will take place at a Tarmac site to investigate the potential for hydrogen to be used as an alternative to natural gas. 

Both projects will share their results with wider industries and supply chains, sharing the benefits with UK and global industry and maximising the positive environmental impacts. The trials are due to be completed in 2021.

If successful, this world-first fuel switching could save as much as two million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year if used across the UK cement industry. This is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions from 266,000 households, and 0.6% of 2018 UK greenhouse gas emissions.

The BEIS-funded research projects will also help to inform government about whether to invest into a hydrogen or electricity-based economy to deliver net zero.  

This is truly ground-breaking research for the cement, concrete and lime industries and could prove a hugely significant step change in reducing emissions, with the added potential to be used not only here in the UK but right around the world.

Dr Richard Leese, MPA Director – Industrial Policy, Energy and Climate Change