Solving for Zero: Carbon-Neutral Cement Could Make Concrete Go Green by 2040

ecocom working on reducing pollutants in concrete

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

As highlighted in the new documentary Solving for Zero, cement is a major contributor of carbon emissions—for now. Companies like Ecocem are developing environmentally friendly cement for use in concrete. This week on Wondrium Shorts, meet the minds behind carbon-neutral cement.

Concrete is one of the most widely used substances on Earth, second only to water. One of the principle components of concrete is cement, but for every ton of cement that gets made, almost the same amount of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. However, it’s not all bad news: Innovators are developing cement that could bring concrete’s carbon emissions down close to zero.

In the film Solving for Zero, Conor O’Riain, of low-carbon cement producer Ecocem, is profiled about his work to reduce carbon emissions in the building materials industry. O’Riain explains what he and Ecocem are doing to move ever closer to net-zero carbon emissions.

Ubiquitous to the Point of Anonymity

“The raw materials [for concrete] are available in most places on Earth,” O’Riain said. “It’s cheap and it can take any form you want it to take. It’s one of the most durable materials on Earth, and it’s also essential to the way our society is built.”

According to O’Riain, the Pantheon in Rome was built from concrete and it stands to this day. That ancient concrete came from rocks from volcanoes. The process of manufacturing concrete has been refined since then, but concrete is still all around us.

“One of the ways we describe concrete is ubiquitous to the point of anonymity, which is to say that it’s so everywhere that you don’t even see it anymore,” O’Riain said. “It’s only in very recent years that that the construction industry has started to really focus on the challenge that climate change presents. Demand for concrete and cement is set to grow in the future.”

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Making the Change Together

O’Riain works the cement business with his father, Donal; his younger brother, Gavin; and their mother. Together they face the problem of keeping up the standards of concrete while moving to a product that’s manufactured very differently. Donal was the original founder of Ecocom.

“Ecocem supplies technologies and low-carbon products to the concrete and cement and construction industry in order to minimize our carbon footprint as a global construction indusry,” O’Riain said. “The challenge for us is using the minimum amount of polluting materials possible whilst maintaining the properties, flow, durability, strength, [and] ease of use—and that’s what we’ve achieved with this new technology.”

Clinker is a term in the concrete business for the burnt limestone and shale involved in the process. It’s the most polluting part of the cement. O’Riain said that about one-third of carbon emissions in the process of making concrete come from heating the limestone. The remaining two-thirds is the carbon contained in the limestone that’s released during the burning process.

Like Son, Like Father

Conor’s father Donal also features in Solving for Zero and discusses more of the journey to reducing carbon emissions in the concrete industry.

“On top of being a very environmental project, that Ecocom technology enabled the concrete here to actually increase its desired life, which expands over the 50 years that is required, and go up to 78 years, which is a big part of sustainable construction,” the elder O’Riain said.

He also said that Ecocom uses the same materials as are used in traditional cement, but they use them very differently. So far, the pollutant elements in Ecocom’s cement are down to just 20% of the mix as opposed to the traditional 80 to 90%, and they’re still going down.

“The important breakthrough that our technology represents is that it opens up the scope for using a much wider range of materials in the manufacture of cement.”

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily