So Big Data will make our concrete much more... green

A university-industry partnership aims to make supplementary cementitious materials for the sector more accessible and sustainable

green cement: sustainable cement
At the heart of the project to make cement production more sustainable are additional cementitious materials (Photo: Envato)

Concrete, often considered the backbone (literally!) of our modern lives, plays a crucial role in building the infrastructure that defines our world.

The roads we travel on, the bridges we cross, the buildings we live and work in, all rely heavily on this material.

But if concrete has been the pillar of our societies for decades, the urgency of make it more sustainable its production has become a crucial topic in the context of environmental challenges today.

And so from Scotland comes a research project ambitious, designed to drastically reduce the carbon emissions linked to cement production, paving the way for a greener future for our essential infrastructure. Let's delve deeper…

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Overall, the construction sector contributes 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (Photo: Envato)

An indispensable and polluting material

Let's go in order. Concrete is a widely used building material around the world, but it has a notable environmental impact due to its production and use cycle.

To produce cement, large quantities of raw materials, such as limestone, clay and minerals, need to be mined, resulting in problems environmental, such as deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats. 

We are also talking about a rather "energy-intensive" process: the production of cement requires significant quantities of water and energy from fossil sources to operate the kilns at very high temperatures.

This process emits a significant amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change andpollution from fine dust, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which can have negative effects on human health and onsurrounding environment.

How is cement produced? First the raw materials are crushed and dried, obtaining an extremely fine powder.

This powder is then subjected to a cooking process in ovens that reach high temperatures, between 1300 and 1450 degrees centigrade.

This process generates the clinker, a crucial element in the production of cement, as the main binder that allows it to harden.

The clinker comes in the form of small balls, which once cooled are finely ground and mixed with chalk and other substances to obtain various types of cement, depending on the desired properties.

Cement production generates a significant amount of waste, such as blast furnace slag and fly ash, which require appropriate management and disposal.

Annual production of 4,1 billion tons contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, about 8 percent.

A percentage comparable to that produced by automotive vehicles and almost three times higher than that generated by the aviation sector.

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green cement: environmental impact
From the extraction of raw materials to the use of energy, cement production has a significant negative impact on the environment (Photo: Envato)

The innovative research project on SCM

The challenge to reduce emissions related to cement production has now reached a crucial turning point with the launch of the ambitious research project led by FLSmidth, a leading supplier of equipment to the cement industry, and Scotland's University of Aberdeen.

The DETOCS (Digital Enhancement of the Use of Supplementary Cementitious Materials) research partnership aims to explore the vast potential of substitute cement materials, in the search for a greater sustainability for the sector.

Through a collaboration between eighteen European universities and research institutes, researchers want to exploit the digital solutions to optimize the use of supplementary cementitious materials (SCM), which play a central role in achieving zero emissions.

SCMs, such as naturally occurring pozzolans (volcanic ash) and industrial by-products such as fly ash, blast furnace slag and silica fume, offer a green alternative to clinker.

When integrated with conventional cement, SCMs significantly reduce carbon emissions associated with manufacturing.

The main obstacle, however, is ensuring a constant supply of high-quality SCM on a large enough scale to make them a viable choice in cement production. And the key to overcoming this challenge lies in the ability to seamlessly switch between different SCMs during production.

The project aims to overcome this obstacle, exploiting the wealth of accumulated data by industry players over several decades.

This data, when coupled with a deep understanding of manufacturing processes, will be the foundation of innovative digital solutions aimed at enhancing the integration of SCMs in the production of greener cement.

“Cement plants already collect a large amount of operational data. Our ambition is to combine this data and fundamental understanding of cement chemistry to create advanced predictive models, enabling cement factories to rapidly adapt and optimize their processes to new SCMs and produce ultra-low carbon cement on demand“said the Dr. Leal da Silva of the FLSmidth Green Innovation Team.

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green cement: additional cementitious materials
The DETOCS project aims to use data collected over time by the sector to integrate additional cementitious materials into production and reduce emissions (Photo: Pexels)

Ecological and smart, they are the materials of the future

FLSmidth's project is not the only one that aims to make cement more sustainable, to imagine green cement. The American for example, it has developed a product starting from calcium silicate (rather than limestone), a substance that does not produce CO2 when heated.

In general, the construction sector, which contributes 40 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions, is fielding numerous tools to reduce your ecological footprint.

The main ones concern materials, with numerous initiatives aimed at giving greater priority to natural and renewable materials. An attention that is also growing in the road and paving sector, as demonstrated by the commitment of Solid Earth in the use of recyclable and ecological materials. 

From flooring to SCM to make concrete greener, the sector is renewing itself and putting a project in the pipeline more sustainable future, becoming a pillar not only of our infrastructure, but also of our responsibility towards the planet.

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