September 21, 2021

Ecocem: Innovating to redefine low carbon construction

We spoke to Donal O’Riain, Founder and Managing Director of EU scale-up Ecocem, on their ambition to radically reduce cement emissions, how innovation can transform an industry, and what the EU can do to become a global leader in low carbon construction

The cement industry is not on a net zero trajectory

Donal O'Riain, Founder and Managing Director, Ecocem

Concrete is the most widely used construction material. It is durable, versatile and cost-efficient. However the production of cement, concrete’s key ingredient, is responsible for around 7% of global GHG emissions[1]. As European industry draws up decarbonisation plans to meet the 2030 target of 55% emissions reduction over1990 levels, how does the cement industry measure up?

Cement industry emissions are down 15% from 1990 levels. But the roadmap drawn up by a cement industry association maintains that near-term emissions reduction levers are almost exhausted, projecting further reduction of about one percent per year in the period from 2017 to 2030[2].

Furthermore, after 2030, the roadmap plans an additional 53% reduction in cement production CO2emissions by 2050, leading to a cumulative total of 80% from 1990 levels. The additional savings rely heavily on CO2 capture, a technology still in development, and one which adds a hefty premium onto the production cost of cement.

Donal pointed to a range of alternative technologies already being piloted across the EU which would deliver earlier, deeper decarbonisation. If we develop the right legislative and regulatory environment for these technologies to flourish, the cement industry could reach much more ambitious emissions reductions.

Ecocem cement is being used in the construction of the Wonderwoods development, in Utrecht, Netherlands

The quest for a scalable, ultra-low-carbon cement

The majority of the CO2 emitted by cement manufacture comes through the chemical reaction in which clinker, the key component in traditional cement, is created. Therefore, clean energy substitution, although useful, has a limited effect. Most low-carbon cement formulations replace clinker with “supplementary cementitious materials”: materials which have similar binding properties. Ecocem’s original product uses blast furnace slag (BFS), which produces a very high-quality cement, and which is used throughout Western Europe today in applications including large infrastructure projects. These cements have a carbon footprint of about 70kg per tonne of cement, compared to about 600kg per tonne for conventional cements.

The issue is that these products are not yet scalable at a global level: BFS is a steel industry by-product, and therefore availability is limited by the scale of steel production. The EU’s entire annual output of BFS would only be able to service a fraction of Europe’s annual cement needs. And process improvements have yielded only incremental efficiency improvements.

So, five years ago, Ecocem started to work on a radically new cement which would be fully scalable.

“We took the best industrial technology and combined it with the best alternative cementitious materials. We applied optimisation techniques to the process, and then worked on ironing out the problems, because when you innovate there are always problems. It was a painstaking process.”

The new product has the potential to reduce the CO2 footprint of cement by at least 70%,thanks to an 80% reduction in clinker. It is currently in certification, and Ecocem hopes to bring it to market within two years. The green premium, the cost premium compared to the higher-emitting product it substitutes, is less than €20 per ton. (A ton of cement sells for around €70-75 per ton in the EU).This is much less than the cost of carbon capture technology, which may add more than one hundred percent to today’s production cost of cement. Ecocem’s new technology is not intended to replace carbon capture technology, instead, the technologies could work in tandem for the best possible impact on emissions. Ecocem’s technology could also be available for widespread use well in advance of carbon capture.

Ecocem has been making low-carbon cements for almost twenty years

The company has supplied many large-scale European infrastructure projects, such as Le Grand Paris, and in partnership with construction industry giants such as Vinci and Lafarge Holcim.

This could be an opportunity for EU cement producers to become global leaders in low-carbon construction materials, Donal suggests. Adopting this innovative, new technology opens up new possibilities for a more sophisticated product mix, by tailoring cement mixes according to the application, and supplying higher quality products.

“One company cannot decarbonise a whole sector, for material impact we need whole industry adoption.”

For this reason, Ecocem hopes to speed rollout – and emissions reduction - by licensing their technology. Ecocem projects that a 65% market share would allow their new cement to achieve a 60% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 from 1990 levels. With the company’s current resources, Donal estimates that the product could reach critical mass in six to seven years.

“But we don’t have six or seven years. If we don’t move quickly, we have no chance of reaching the target of 55% emissions reduction by 2030.”

Bold policy is needed to scale new construction technologies

Policy interventions will be critical to stimulate market demand needed to speed adoption of new products and accelerate decarbonisation in this sector. Although cement products are certified at an EU level, many countries employ norms and standards which specify exactly which kinds of cement should be used in order for concrete to be structurally certified. This is fundamental for safety, but it slows the adoption of new, innovative products, especially when updating the specifications for new products can take up to five years. More streamlined, accelerated revision processes for norms and standards in individual member states would support the adoption of new, higher performing products. The upcoming EU standardisation strategy could help drive change in this area.

EU policymakers are also preparing a revision of the Construction Products Regulation and Ecodesign Directive, which Ecocem hopes will propose stricter environmental performance and sustainability standards for construction products. This could incentivise consumers and industry to choose greener products and help accelerate the roll-out of low-carbon cement.  

The EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy is another policy area which could support investment, by defining low-carbon cement as a sustainable investment. [EC1] However, the Taxonomy’s current CO2 threshold for cement manufacturing is too high to reward game-changing low-carbon cement products such as Ecocem’s.

The EU can be more ambitious in defining what makes products and industrial processes truly sustainable. The standardisation strategy, Construction Products Regulation, and Ecodesign revision are key opportunities to define stricter environmental performance and sustainability standards. Redefining the benchmark for low-carbon cement could substantially reduce GHG emissions across the construction industry, as well as contributing to the broader EU effort to achieve 2030 and 2050 decarbonisation targets.

[1] IEA

[2] Cembureau

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