Thai cement production needs to reduce its carbon emissions

Thailand is among the largest producers of cement in Asia, manufacturing nearly 33 million tonnes per year. While this is good news for the economy, it’s bad news for the climate as the industry is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases.

Internationally, this year will see a greater emphasis on industrial decarbonization, a key topic already announced for the COP 28 meeting in Dubai in December.

A particular focus on the cement industry is expected given that 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to cement and it is one of the most challenging sectors of the economy to decarbonize. 

To make cement, fossil fuels are burnt to heat limestone to 1500°C to produce cement’s main ingredient, clinker. Carbon is released as the limestone is heated, accounting for 60% of the emissions from cement production. The other 40% comes from the burning of coal to produce this high temperature. This means that the cement industry needs a combination of solutions to decarbonize both sources of emissions. 

Of course, we could use less cement but as the most widely used construction material, it is the backbone of modern society. Demand for cement is expected to increase in Thailand and across the world in the coming decades due to soaring population growth and urbanization. The cement industry recognises the need to decarbonize however cement companies more than any other industry are focusing on Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technologies which are not expected to be implemented until 2040–2050. This reliance on unproven and unavailable technologies would leave emissions from cement production to continue for another 20 years from now. 

To delay reducing emissions until 2040 could be catastrophic for the planet. What’s more, according to the latest research published in Nature, not hitting net zero (but making good progress by 2030) delivers a significantly better result for the planet than hitting net zero through a big improvement between 2040 and 2050.

With this in mind, Carbon Re, a spin-out of the UK’s Cambridge University and University College London, set out to assess decarbonization technologies for cement production with the potential to make an impact in the next decade. The research found that the cement industry could use a combination of 13 existing technologies to reduce carbon emissions globally by 0.8 gigatonnes per year. This is equivalent to the total annual greenhouse gas emissions of Thailand and Vietnam, combined.

The combination of just three technologies assessed can deliver over 80% of this impact. Moreover, these technologies are well known to the cement industry and implementing them can prove to be cost-saving for producers. 

The first technology is known in the industry as Substitute Cementitious Materials (SCMs). SCMs are materials that can be used to replace clinker. Commonly, waste products from coal-power stations and steel production are used. Many cement plants already have the capability to incorporate SCMs but the uptake of this solution is limited by the availability of these waste materials.

The second solution involves replacing coal with alternative fuels such as biomass, refuse-derived fuels (RDF) and municipal solid waste (MSW) to heat the kilns. 

The final technology is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve processes. With AI and machine learning technology, the many variables of cement production can be controlled, allowing for an optimal and more efficient process, reducing carbon intensities from the fuel and electricity used. AI models can also be used to optimise the mix of SCMs in cement, helping with the challenge of maintaining quality strength in cement without waiting for up to 28 days for strength tests to be complete. 

Unlike SCMs and alternative fuels, AI is not limited by the availability of materials and the implementation of the technology can be very quick as it adapts to existing processes. 

Currently, the cement industry is not incentivized to reduce its emissions outside of reputational pressure but over the coming years, we expect changes in government policies and carbon taxes to make them the primary driver of the adoption of these technologies.

The road to a net-zero industry is a long one but research shows that the cement industry can start reducing emissions today.