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When the CO2 starts flowing for the cement sector

Delegates at the Global CemCCUS Conference last week applauded when Anders Petersen, the Senior Project Manager Brevik CCS, Heidelberg Materials said that the Brevik cement plant will be capturing CO2 and permanently storing it within the year. Rightly so. This moment will mark a historic milestone for the sector when it arrives. Net zero cement production is coming.

Last week’s event in Oslo delivered an overview of the current state of carbon capture in the cement and lime industries. It explored the practical challenges these industries face in capturing CO2 emissions and – crucially – then working out what to do with them afterwards. Incredibly, delegates were able to view the construction site of Heidelberg Materials’ forthcoming full-scale carbon capture unit at its Brevik plant in Norway. On the same day as the tour, Holcim broke ground on the Go4Zero carbon capture project at its Obourg plant in Belgium.

The key takeaway at the conference was that a (dusty) bulk solids sector is starting to work with handling (clean) gases in a way it hasn’t before. This recurred repeatedly throughout the conference. Petersen summarised it well when he described Brevik as a meeting pointing between the cement industry and the petrochemical one. It looks likely at present that there will not be a single predominant carbon capture technology that the majority of cement plants will deploy in the future. Similarly, CO2 storage infrastructure and sequestration sites differ. Utilisation plans are less developed but also offer various options. Yet, if carbon capture becomes common at cement and lime plants, then these companies will need to learn how to filter and handle gases regardless of the capture method and destination for the CO2. So presentations on filtration and compressors were a revelation at CemCCUS.

The key obstacle remains how to pay for it all. By necessity, most of the big early projects have received external funding, mostly from governments. Although, to be fair, the private companies involved are often investing considerable amounts of their own money and taking risks in the process too. In the European Union (EU) CO2 is being priced via the Emissions Trading Scheme and investments are being made via the EU Innovation Fund and other schemes. In the US the approach lies in tax breaks, on-shoring and investment in new sustainable technologies.

However, other countries have different priorities. Or as a South Asian contact told Global Cement Weekly at a different conference, “How can our government think about sustainability when it can’t feed everyone?” The world’s biggest cement producing countries are China and India, and then the EU and the US follow. Brazil, Türkiye and Vietnam are at similar levels or not far behind. The EU and the US represent about 9% of global cement production based on Cembureau figures for 2022. China and India cover 61% of production. Neither of these countries has announced a plan to encourage the widespread construction of carbon capture units. Once China ‘gets’ cement carbon capture though, it seems plausible that it will dominate it as it has in many other sectors such as solar panel production. Exporters such as Türkiye and Vietnam will have to adapt to the rules of their target markets.

The march by the cement and lime sectors towards carbon capture has been long, difficult and expensive. It also has a long, long way to go. Yet, the next decade promises to be exciting as new technologies are developed and tested, full-scale projects are commissioned and CO2 pipelines, sequestration sites and usage hubs come online. The next key milestones to look out for include the first full-scale installations using other capture methods (such as oxy-fuel kilns), the first CO2 pipeline network that hooks up to a cement plant, the first land-based sequestration site, the first industrial hub that uses CO2 at scale to manufacture a product, new government policies in China and India, and the first large unit that is funded entirely from private finance. To end on a positive note, a Cembureau representative at the Global CemCCUS Conference reckoned that Europe will be able to capture 12Mt/yr of CO2 by 2030. If it happens, this will be a major achievement and a serious statement of intent towards net zero for the sector.

This short recap of the event barely touches the surface of what happened so be sure to read the full review of the 1st Global CemCCUS Conference.

The 2nd Global CemCCUS Conference will take place in Hamburg in May 2025

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