World Cement (WC): The WCA recently held a conference in Shanghai on ‘Innovation for a Sustainable Industry’ – what impact has China had on the global cement industry?
Ian Riley (IR): In 2005, the Chinese cement Industry had 5 500 players, most of whom operated small vertical shaft kilns (VSK), producing cement of low and variable quality. By 2015, the VSK had been shut down, replaced by modern NSP kilns and the industry had expanded to nearly 60% of the global total. The expansion over those 10 years involved building over 1000 new lines – the experience gained gave Chinese equipment manufacturers and engineering companies the chance to learn at a rapid pace and expand their global footprint. Today for example, Sinoma International has over 60% of the worldwide market for new cement plants, and Chinese equipment is recognised globally as being good quality and good value.
Today, innovation is being driven by both Chinese and European equipment and engineering companies, with much of the equipment manufacture taking place in China for all suppliers. In addition to the innovation from suppliers, Chinese cement companies are also at the forefront of operational excellence, with new large-scale plants being operated efficiently and properly maintained. China is setting the global standard for reduction of dust and NOx emissions, with more stringent emission limits and strict enforcement.
Over the past few years, Chinese cement companies have started to invest overseas, and are significant players in South East and Central Asia, and Africa. As Chinese contractors continue to increase their global business, we expect that Chinese companies will continue to extend their influence.
WC: How does the WCA help its members to respond to industry challenges, such as climate change?
IR: There is still plenty of room to improve industry performance using the traditional levers such as energy efficiency and alternative fuels, where there remains a significant gap between current and best practices.
WCA’s climate change roadmap provides practical guidance to help members analyse immediate steps such as energy efficiency, waste heat recovery (WHR) and alternative fuels, as well as looking at longer term measures. To help with implementation, WCA’s member forums share best practice on specific topics, for example, advanced milling technologies or use of AI.
Another form of knowledge sharing is through plant audits, which highlight the gap between members’ operations and best practice, as well as the options available to close this gap. The focus of these audits is primarily on energy efficiency and maintenance. Many steps can be taken with little capital investment to improve stability and efficiency of existing lines. Sometimes capital is needed, for example waste heat recovery projects are viable in many cases even without the incentive of a carbon price.
WC: What steps will the cement industry have to take in order to meet the aims of the Paris Climate Accords and possibly decarbonise the industry by 2050?
IR: Key components of decarbonisation will include:
• Energy efficiency and WHR
• Alternative fuels, especially municipal and industrial waste and biomass
• Renewable electricity
• Optimising the use of materials in construction
• Products with lower carbon footprint such as low clinker-factor cement and new materials such as clinkers that use carbon curing (e.g. Solidia)
• Carbon capture and usage
Carbon capture and usage is in the very early stages but is expected to play a very important role. There are some interesting technologies already being used at small scale that use CO2 in building materials. This is a very interesting possibility given the quantities of building materials used.
WC: Aside from improving emissions control and energy efficiency, what else can the cement industry do to make a positive impact on the environment?
IR: Of course, climate change is not the only environmental crisis we face. The industry can make a positive impact on biodiversity in developed countries where reduced biodiversity from many years of intensive farming can be mitigated during quarry reclamation. One of our members, Asia Cement, is hosting a member forum at their Hualien quarry, which really showcases best practice in the industry with regards to habitat and biodiversity restoration.
WC: What trends or technologies do you see as shaping the future of the cement industry?
IR: Beyond the environmental issues we have already covered, the key factor affecting the future of the cement industry is digitalisation and other changes in the construction industry, such as modular construction. The construction industry has changed little in the last 50 years and indeed over this period, construction productivity has been flat. However, there are signs that things are changing, and we expect a significant change in our customers’ requirements over the next 10 years.