Ecocem: supporting Europe’s Green deal

Published 14 March 2022

Since its foundation in 2003 Ecocem has been a driving force in establishing the use of low-carbon cement using slag as a key raw material. ICR spoke with its Managing Director, Conor O’Riain, about the company’s developments and its expectations going forward.

Conor O’Riain, managing director of Ecocem, speaks with ICR

about the company’s achievements to date and challenges ahead

ICR: How has Ecocem evolved since its founding and where are its cement plants located today?

Conor O’Riain (COR): After founding Ecocem in 2000, we built our first plant in The Netherlands in 2002 with a capacity of 350,000tpa. The following year, we opened a second plant in Dublin, Ireland, and spent the next few years focussing on expanding these businesses.

We then formed a joint venture with ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer, to launch Ecocem France. Our first French plant opened in 2009 in Fos-sur-Mer, near Marseille, and our second in Dunkirk in 2018. We now have a total of four manufacturing facilities across Europe with a capacity of 2.4Mta.

In addition to this international expansion, we have spent the past eight years investing heavily in research and development, reinvesting two per cent of turnover in this area.

Almost 15 per cent of our employees make up our Innovation Team. The team comprises industry experts across their respective fields and the vast majority hold PhDs. This team has delivered a steady stream of groundbreaking developments in cement technology, meaning we now provide the lowest carbon cement ever used in Europe at scale, reducing the CO2 footprint by over a factor of eight.

We recently opened a world-class innovation centre in Paris that will enable this team to focus on testing, evaluating, and improving our new ultra-low carbon solutions.

Carbon reduction at the centre

ICR: What technical advantages do slag cements offer in terms of performance and environmental impact?
COR: Put simply, slag cements make concrete stronger and more durable, and have been used for decades to improve its technical performance. Slag cements remain the most cost-effective way to increase the long-term strength, durability and all-round performance of concrete to this day, being used all over the world in the harshest conditions.

No one really focussed on the carbon footprint of slag (which has up to 40 times less CO2 than traditional cement) until my father founded Ecocem. Thanks to his work, it is now globally recognised as the best available technology for reducing the carbon footprint of concrete.

ICR: What level of carbon reduction can be achieved with your products? 

COR: Our Innovation Team is constantly working to develop our technology to enable the industry to reduce CO2 emissions even more rapidly.

We recently announced the provision of our new ultra-low carbon cement to two major Paris projects – the Athletes’ Village for the 2024 summer and the Grand Paris Express. The technology used – Ecocem Ultra – is an alternative to traditional cement and will significantly reduce the CO2 footprint of both projects.
The challenge we must now take on is scalability. Currently, there is enough slag to replace around 10 per cent of cement worldwide with existing technology, meaning our focus is now on developing low-carbon technologies for the cement industry that are not limited by the availability of granulated slag.

Slag cement is now globally recognised as best available technology in terms of shrinking the carbon footprint of concrete

ICR: Is there much difference in the Eco2cem product that the Ecocem Benelux BV plant produces compared to Ecocem GGBS in Ireland and France?

COR: There’s virtually no difference between the GGBS produced at these plants as they all need to be interchangeable. Large infrastructural projects often require back-up plants to ensure security of supply, so we ensure that they all have the same outstanding performance.

ICR: What targets are being set for the Dunkirk grinding plant now that it is firmly established? Has it enabled the Fos-sur-Mer plant to focus more on local markets with two plants now operating in France?

COR: Both our plants in France are at full capacity and focussing on developing innovative, low-carbon solutions for local markets. For example, in Fos-sur-Mer, we have developed an ultra-high-performance cement that has the lowest carbon footprint available in Europe.

This cement has been developed specifically for the TELT project, a new tunnel under the Alps which will run through highly aggressive environments, requiring unique building materials. Our cement will allow the extracted materials to be used in the concrete, meaning they do not have to be transported hundreds of kilometres away to be landfilled.

European challenges

ICR: What is the availability or limits of slag supply in Europe and how will this impact Ecocem operations in the long-term?

COR: The latest IPCC report tells us that the cement industry’s CO2 emissions must be reduced by 50 per cent by the end of the decade. There is currently enough slag in the world to replace 10 per cent of cement production, which is significant but does not go far enough.

We have been cognisant of this challenge for eight years when we made the decision to accelerate our investment in innovation to provide a solution on how to go beyond slag.

Since then, we have developed technologies that, using a small fraction of the slag we currently use in binders, have the same durability and strength as traditional concrete, and are investing in developing these at scale.

ICR: How do you think the European cement market will evolve in terms of product development as the EU decarbonises and new supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs) such as calcined clays come onto the market?

COR: The industry must further develop the circular economy to achieve the decarbonisation goals.  We are conscious we must develop alternatives as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Our Innovation Team is developing activation technologies that will give a wide range of industrial by-products cementitious properties. In the meantime, minimising the clinker content of cement is the only solution available while we await the development of appropriate carbon capture and storage.

ICR: Will the new EU ETS Phase IV regulations have a huge effect on your business model?

COR: The new ETS Phase IV regulations will ensure a high cost for CO2 and, therefore, put a lot of pressure on the cement industry to decarbonise. We aim to be an integral part of the solution to this increased cost for our customers by continuing to develop low-carbon technologies for the cement industry - not just on a European but on a global scale.

Our business model is constantly evolving and we do not sit still. The next phase of the ETS will accelerate our innovation of low-carbon technologies and products that can decarbonise one of the hardest to abate sectors in the world.

ICR: What challenges arose over Brexit and keeping imports flowing to the UK from Ireland and France?

COR: The initial impact of Brexit on our business was the collapse of the pound sterling, which meant our GB businesses were under a lot of pressure in the short-term.

Now, we are pleased to see the UK is bouncing back and that low-carbon, high-quality construction materials are in high demand.

ICR: Energy prices have been rising all over Europe. How has Ecocem looked to reduce energy consumption?

COR: We have an internal projects team in Ecocem that constantly seeks to increase the efficiency of our plants. For example, in Dunkirk we have replaced 90 per cent of our natural gas consumption with blast furnace gas from the nearby ArcelorMittal plant.

ICR: What is the primary grinding technology deployed by your plants?

COR: We use a combination of roller mills, ball mills and vertical mills, but most of our production comes from vertical mills. While these are a lot more efficient, they are also more expensive, so we had to develop as a business before we could afford them!

Looking ahead

ICR: How is Ecocem looking to grow its low-carbon cement range with the new investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures?

COR: We are constantly optimising the environmental, technical and economic performance of our technology and products, and accelerating the development of new technology and products that will help the cement industry decarbonise even more quickly.

Ecocem is backed by Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), a coalition of private investors led by Bill Gates that supports innovations that will lead the world to net-zero emissions. The investment we received from BEV in 2021 makes a substantial difference to the development of our new technologies, accelerating their arrival on the markets.

In addition to the aforementioned innovation centre, we are also engaged in numerous scientific collaborations with universities around the world from University Paris Saclay (France) to São Paulo University (Brazil), helping us to run industrial-sized trials alongside our trusted industry partners.

ICR: What is the current demand for low-carbon cements in Europe and how will the EU’s Green Deal help support this demand?

COR: Demand for low-carbon cement is substantial, currently outstripping supply in Europe, which the EU’s Green Deal will further drive.

I have been encouraged by the strong response from the market to create low-carbon solutions to meet this demand but am conscious a lot remains to be achieved to decarbonise the cement industry.
With our focus on investment in innovation and funding from partners like BEV, we are uniquely positioned to take full advantage of the opportunities created by the EU’s Green Deal.

ICR: Is Ecocem still looking for opportunities in the USA despite the Vallejo project not coming to fruition?

COR: We are currently working on a number of projects in a variety of locations, details of which we can disclose in 2022.

Ecocem is supplying several large infrastructure projects such as the Athletes’ Village in Paris, France, in 2022

ICR: What large infrastructure projects will Ecocem be participating in during 2022?

COR: In 2022 we will be supplying a record number of innovative projects, including continuing to supply the largest infrastructure projects in Europe.

We are supplying a number of the new metro lines on the Grand Paris project, having had confirmation that our new Ecocem Ultra product will be used in the tunnel segments in of the line 18 project in 2022 – a world first.

We are also supplying a number of segments of the HS2 project in the UK and participating in the preparatory works of the TELT tunnel in the Alps.

This article was first published in International Cement Review in March 2022.