In November 2019, FLSmidth announced its sustainability ambition for 2030 called ‘MissionZero’. The ambition is a response to the growing demand from cement producers around the world for sustainable solutions. MissionZero aligns with some of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to address climate change. This interview with Thomas Schulz, former Group CEO of FLSmidth was first published in International Cement Review, March 2020.
Q. What prompted FLSmidth to draw up the MissionZero plan and what are its key objectives?A. The cement industry has always chased productivity gains and innovation has been directed towards making processes more efficient. Increased efficiency means less consumption of resources such as fuel and power, which is a key driver for sustainability. So, in one sense, this is nothing new. What is new is the accelerated pace and collective sense of urgency within the industry. The Paris Agreement has certainly played a role in that, but the trend is also reinforced by other government initiatives, investors, a proliferation of CO2 pricing and even societal expectations.
The objective of MissionZero is to enable our customers on their journey towards zero environmental impact from cement production.
Industry takes a stance
Q. How would you evaluate the achievements of the cement industry over the past decade?
A. The most notable achievement in the last decade has been the tremendous uptake in digitalisation. In the context of sustainability, digitalisation is extremely important - both as an enabler and a catalyst. It goes without saying that the most efficient plants in the world are supported by modern control systems. With each new generation of our ECS/ProcessExpert plant control system, for example, efficiency gains are realised, and thus fuel and power consumption per ton of production is reduced.
Data analytics is another key enabler in fostering a sustainable production. With this, we can combine data capture with process knowledge to come up with solutions that run plants more reliably. For instance, with the latest version of the QCX/BlendExpert™, the improved process modelling, and optimisation has led to a two percent reduction in energy consumption.
I am generally very optimistic and pleased to see how the cement industry has taken on the issue of climate change in recent years. I see great commitment from all areas and notice new partnerships forming. Most plant owners are dedicated to reducing emissions and energy consumption – this is clearly reflected in the increase in demand for sustainable solutions from our customers.
Technologies for change
Q. FLSmidth claims there is a 30 percent gap to close from today’s existing technologies to transition to zero CO2 emissions per kilogram of cement manufactured. Can you break this down into the different technologies you are exploring and explain how each one can contribute to the overall goal?
A. To achieve our ambition of zero CO2 emissions in 2030, we have three important milestones to reach; number one is to make cement production free from fossil fuel. In the next few years, we will enable our customers to phase out fossil fuels by securing 100 per cent alternative fuel firing and fuel flexibility.
The second milestone is to reduce the clinker factor by accelerating deployment of clay calcination and promoting the use of clinker, clay and limestone blends. To succeed, we first need to demonstrate industrial-scale clay calcination for use as a cementitious binder, and then decarbonise this process via electrification.
Before the turn of the decade, the final milestone will be to introduce circular economy and alternative raw materials to the mix. Possible scenarios include the deployment of geopolymers, replacing limestone with cement recycled from old concrete structures and maybe even using cement plants to produce brown fuels. Whatever scenario proves to be the most commercially viable, the focus is on implementing circular economy principles and industrialising alternative raw materials.
Some of the solutions needed to reach these milestones are already on the market today while others are early in the innovation process. However, the goals of MissionZero go beyond what is feasible with the technology available today. It requires a shift in how industry players collaborate and innovate. We will need to accelerate the adoption of new technologies and actively seek new partnerships to co-create the solutions we need to take us all the way.
Q. How will it be possible to ensure cement plants across the board can reach 100 percent alternative fuel (AF) utilisation? To what extent does AF technology remain a barrier to achieving this goal?
A. With sustainability high on the agenda, alternative fuels firing is fast becoming more and more common in cement plants. From 1990 to 2017, the use of alternative fuels has increased by 880 percent and is a contributing factor to the 18.3 percent CO2 emission reduction per tonnes of cementitious product since 1990.
Process knowledge is critical when starting up the use of alternative fuels because even the slightest change to one part of the process can start a chain reaction.
The opportunities for cement producers to start the transition towards alternative fuels are many, but it is a gradual process. Many of our customers have started with the Pfister® Alternative Fuels Starter Kit that comes with a complete package of equipment for materials handling, dosing and burning, and is designed for using a wide range of alternative fuels like biomass and refuse-derived fuel (RDF).
To achieve our goal of enabling our customers to reach 100 percent alternative fuel utilisation, we are now focusing on developing the gasification technology that gives us a stable, clean and sustainable combustion gas in the calciner and later, to deploy this solution to the main burner.
Clinker reduction and alternative raw materials
Q. How important is it for the cement industry to move away from ordinary Portland cements and what scope is there to discover alternative binders?
A. To increase flexibility for the use of more differentiated types of cement, we need to take another hard look at the cement strength standards. Strict cement strength standards like the European cement standard, EN196-1, affect the decision to adopt the practice of clinker substitution.
Clinker substitution and the use of alternative raw materials are key in reducing the environmental footprint of the cement industry. To put it into perspective, if we could reduce the CO2 emissions from cement production by just one percentage point, it would be the equivalent of removing the fossil fuel used to provide 258 million households with electricity annually or replacing the use of fossil fuel with 19,000 wind turbines.
We have seen increasing interest from cement plants around the globe that are investing in sustainability-oriented upgrades. Many of them are exploring the transition to clay calcination. Some recent examples are seen in South America and the Philippines, where clay is readily available and suitable for clinker substitution.
Q. Carbon capture, storage and reuse technologies will have to play a leading role in CO2 reduction. Is FLSmidth already working on any projects with other organisations to capture, store and reutilise CO2?
A. I agree that carbon capture looks like it plays a role in ‘hard to abate’ sectors. We are not currently involved in any specific projects, but this is certainly a technology we monitor closely.
Given the urgency of climate change and the industry’s obligation to the Paris Agreement, no stone should be left unturned in the quest to find solutions that are scalable and financially viable.
Plants of the future
Q. What is your vision of a zero emission plant?
A. Our vision for the 2030 zero emission plant is that it not only helps build better societies for an additional 1.2 billion inhabitants on Earth, offering modern-day life necessities like housing, schools and hospitals, but that we do it without jeopardising the environment for future generations.
The cement plant of 2030 is a digital plant, making use of data analytics to control and predict quality and for optimising alternative fuels. Compared with other industries, cement is already late to the digital game and very few players have systematically implemented Industry 4.0 initiatives. With the digital plant, we stand to gain on the financial side, but just as importantly, on the people side when it comes to attracting new talent.
Finally, in 2030, the cement plant will be a much more integrated part of its local community. With waste-to-energy as one of the main sources of alternative fuels, the cement plant’s role will extend to helping relieve landfill challenges. The same goes for waste from biomass, another alternative fuel source that ultimately helps address a waste challenge in the local community.
Q. Will there be one unifying technology or a set of options?
A. Many of the processes and technologies we know today, and that the cement industry has used for centuries, will remain the same in the decades to come. The different options we’ll see in the future will vary according to the different alternative fuels and raw materials available locally.
Economics and the business case
Q. With high costs for developing carbon reduction solutions, what scope is there for companies like FLSmidth to reach out to other industry players to develop new technologies and solutions?
A. I am an optimist and I believe that the ingenuity and innovation needed to minimise our environmental footprint is all around us. Some of it is within our own industry, some in partnership with colleagues from other industries and some from experts in the wider community.
We are attacking the issue of climate change from every possible angle in our own research. We engage in early technology development and collaborate with the academic community, including Denmark’s Technical University.
Q. Can environmental matters be put before balance sheets or will costs be the main factor in determining how quickly carbon reduction solutions are found?A. Sustainability does not need to be in conflict with economic growth. Plants with high efficiency typically have a lower environmental impact and generally lower operating costs. Simply put, there is no downside in using less power and fuel. In some cases, a plant's ability to use RDF can be a separate revenue stream. The goal for us is to ensure higher margins and productivity for our customers with less environmental impact.
Q. Can we assume that there will be huge profits to be made in being the first to not only design, but to offer a commercial-scale and fully carbon-neutral cement plant?A. Yes!
Q. Can the cement industry, in general, really commit to lower short-term profits to achieve the long-term aim of making a breakthrough in developing carbon reduction technology? Or will legislation ultimately guide the industry to rethink its level of commitment to a greener future?A. I believe this is a simple lifecycle assessment. Yes, there are CAPEX costs associated with any upgrade or investment in a new plant, but energy costs, CO2 quotas, brand dilution and remedial costs will eat up the non-sustainable business.
‘Guide’ is a kind word – in some cases it’s the license to operate that is at stake – especially when it comes to NOx emissions.
The access to capital is another issue related to not having a sustainable business. Cement companies, and especially their shareholders, should expect a significant drop in market value if sustainability is not integrated into their business model.
Q. Will consumers be willing to pay the price for low-CO2 cements?A. I don’t believe there is a price to be paid. On the contrary, there might even be a market for a premium, ‘green’ cement.
Q. And finally, how confident are you that FLSmidth will be able to achieve ‘MissionZero’ by 2030?A. I am very confident – this is the one number battle we must win; it is good for our business, for our customers and for future generations.
Global economic growth and urbanisation continue to increase the demand for cement. These investments in infrastructure provide people with a higher quality of life. The trends of sustainability and economic growth perfectly converge into an opportunity for the cement industry to make an incredible impact for the greater good.
We are motivated, passionate and committed to doing our part in moving the cement industry towards CO2 neutrality.