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Who will build the cement plants of tomorrow?

Sinoma International Engineering revealed this week that it has signed a Euro218m contract to supply a new clinker production line for Holcim Belgium. The scope of the deal covers building the new line from limestone unloading via train to clinker transportation and storage. Provisional acceptance and first clinker are stipulated to occur within about four years, by late 2027. Holcim Belgium operates the Obourg Plant, its only integrated unit in the country, and the unit has been preparing to build a new line as part of its Go4Zero project.

Two main points compete for one’s attention with the project at the Obourg Plant. Firstly, this may be the first time a large Europe-based cement producer has publicly contracted a China-based supplier to build a new production line. Secondly, the new line is part of a process to first replace two wet kilns at the site with a dry kiln. This is part of a grand plan at the site to add oxyfuel technology to the plant and then start capturing most of the CO2 emitted for sequestration in the North Sea.

On the first point, China-based Sinoma International Engineering reported to the Shanghai Stock Exchange in early December 2023 that it had signed a contract for the project. Holcim Belgium has not said that it has appointed the subsidiary of CNBM but this is not unusual. Buyers are at liberty to name suppliers, or not as may be the case. Holcim has been talking about the Go4Zero project for several years though, so appointing a lead contractor is not surprising.

Yet, some cement companies in Europe have previously been circumspect about revealing the use of China-based suppliers. Lafarge France, for example, did not appear to publicly name the involvement of Sinoma International Engineering and its subsidiaries on the construction of a new line at its Martres-Tolosane cement plant between 2019 and 2022, although Lafarge Poland did say in 2020 that it had contracted China Triumph International Engineering for an upgrade to its Małogoszcz cement plant. No doubt there have been other plant projects in Europe from China-based suppliers that Global Cement Weekly is unaware of. It is also worth considering that just because a lead contractor on a plant project is from a particular country it doesn’t mean that the equipment and other sub-contractors necessarily are. And, of course, to add to the confusion, some Europe-based equipment suppliers are owned by companies based in China.

This leads to the second point. Holcim Belgium’s eventual goal is to set up a full-scale carbon capture, transportation and sequestration (CCUS) operation at Obourg using oxyfuel technology by the end of the 2020s. Spending over Euro200m on building a new (but conventional) production line is not trivial but it is being presented as one step towards creating a cement plant for the net zero age. To this end Holcim Belgium has been less shy in naming its partners for the second phase of the project: Air Liquide; Fluxys; and TotalEnergies. This may be due to the collaborative nature of this phase though and the need to apply for European Union (EU) funding to support it. In July 2023 Holcim disclosed that the EU Innovation Fund had allocated grants for three of its projects including the one at Obourg.

For reference, a number of other full-scale oxyfuel projects have been announced in Europe including in Germany at Heidelberg Materials’ Geseke cement plant, Holcim Deutschland’s Lägerdorf plant in Germany and Schwenk Zement’s Mergelstetten plant. Another one is planned for Heidelberg Materials’ CBR’s Antoing cement plant in Belgium. Most of these are planned for the late 2020s or with pilots sooner. The key bit of information to consider here is that adding oxyfuel technology to a cement kiln (or building one with it to start with) makes it easier to capture CO2 from the flue gas as it is more concentrated. However, the technology is newer and less-tested than many post-combustion carbon capture methods. Hence, the world’s first full-scale CCUS unit at a cement plant, at Brevik in Norway, will use a post combustion method.

All of this begs the question about where the value will lie in building cement plants for the age of net zero? The planned work at Holcim Belgium’s Obourg Plant pretty much summarises this quandary. Building a cement production line is expensive but the cost of disposing of CO2 may become the single-biggest driver of whether a plant is profitable or not if governments are serious about reaching net zero. To that end today’s announcement from the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) calling on the parties to “transition away from fossil fuels to reach net zero” is another sign of the increasing effects of the so-called ‘carbon agenda’ upon the cement sector. In which case the companies that can supply equipment to take care of the CO2 emissions start becoming more important and discussions over who supplies the rest of the kit less so. Naturally, some cement equipment suppliers are already pivoting towards this approach. Others may find different solutions. Whether this works or not is a question for the future. In the mean-time, building new plants is looking increasingly collaborative.

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