Cement giants turn to green hydrogen and carbon capture in efforts to curb emissions


The unit is housed inside a converted shipping container.

RICE, Energy Safety Research Institute, Swansea University

A subsidiary of multinational building materials firm HeidelbergCement is working with researchers from Swansea University to install and operate a green hydrogen demonstration unit at a site in the U.K.

The collaboration represents another example of how firms involved in energy intensive processes are trying to find ways to maintain productivity whilst simultaneously reducing emissions.

In a statement last week, Swansea University said the green hydrogen unit — which is housed inside a converted shipping container — had been installed at Hanson UK’s Regen GGBS plant in the town of Port Talbot, south Wales.

The term GGBS refers to ground granulated blast furnace slag, which can be used instead of cement when producing concrete.

The effect of cement production on the environment is considerable. According to a 2018 report from U.K. think tank Chatham House, over 4 billion metric tons of cement are produced annually. This, the policy institute said, amounted to roughly 8% of global CO2 emissions.

While it may have a lower carbon footprint than Portland cement, Regen GGBS remains an energy intensive product, requiring substantial amounts of electricity and natural gas.

According to Swansea University, the idea behind the Port Talbot project is to “replace some of the natural gas used at the plant with green hydrogen, which is considered a clean source of energy as it only emits water when burned.”

The unit at Hanson UK’s site generates hydrogen using electrolysis, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen.

If the electricity in the process comes from a renewable source — the project in Wales makes use of on-site wind and solar installations — then the end product is dubbed “green hydrogen.”

The system was put together as part of the Reducing Industrial Carbon Emissions initiative, which is headed up by Swansea University’s Energy Safety Research Institute.

In a statement, Charlie Dunnill, a senior lecturer based at the ESRI, described cement manufacture as “one of the most energy and carbon intensive industries and therefore a perfect place to start making impacts in carbon reduction.”

Last week also saw the world’s largest cement company, LafargeHolcim, announce it would take part in a collaboration to “explore the development” of carbon capture and storage solutions.

In a statement, the business said it would “study the feasibility of capturing carbon” from two facilities, one in Europe and the other in North America, using carbon sequestration tech from Schlumberger New Energy. 

The United States Geological Survey describes carbon sequestration as “the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Breaking things down a bit further, carbon capture can take place naturally — through forests, for example — or via artificially engineered systems developed by humans.

Cement production is just one industrial process ripe for major improvement when it comes to emissions and other metrics related to sustainability.

Aluminum manufacture is another. BMW recently said it had started to source and use aluminum that has been produced using solar energy, for example.

Speaking to CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe” last Friday, the CFO of aluminum producer Hydro commented on the market for more sustainable offerings.

“We are seeing demand for our specific products, Hydro REDUXA and Hydro CIRCAL, which has low CO2 content, or is recycled … really picking up again,” Pal Kildemo said.

“And we’re able to demand a premium on those compared to other, more ‘normal’ products.”

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