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TimePosted 22/07/2019 09:07:12

What is driving biomass use in the cement industry?

This week Ethiopia's Minister of Trade and Industry, Fetlework Gebre-Egziabher, spoke out on how the cement sector in his country could benefit from a move from coal-based energy to biomass with government backing. While the move would face challenges, such as securing investment and land required to grow biomass crops, the benefits of lowering demand on foreign currency reserves for coal imports and reducing CO2 emissions are clearly greater for Ethiopia. The country is but one of several where the use of biomass is gaining interest. What is driving the global uptake of biomass in the cement sector?

Government backing
The importance of government backing in biomass schemes is essential in most cases as investment required is significant and also offers the government the opportunity to show its commitment to renewable fuels and job creation. In the UK the government is aiming for carbon-neutrality by 2050 and biomass is expected to play a part in this.

For example, the UK government has provided GBP1.7m to Drax Power Station in Selby, North Yorkshire, for Drax's C-Capture demonstration project. The project will capture the CO2 from the combustion of a 100 per cent biomass feedstock used to generate power. The successful operation of the pilot plant will result in carbon-negative electricity generation, thanks to the use of biomass and carbon capture technology.

The possibilities for the cement industry learning from the steel sector and companies like C-Capture should drive interest in biomass. "We are looking carefully at the broader market for our carbon capture technology, which includes not just power generation but also the production of cement, steel and aluminium, as well as biogas, across a range of territories including India and China," said Tristan Fischer, chairman of C-Capture.

Industry standards
Another driver for biomass can be seen in Egypt where El Nahda cement plant in Qena had to look for alternative energy sources and a reduction in emissions to qualify for its compliance with ISO 50001:2011. The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) requirements gave El Nahda the impetus to reinvent its fuel process by replacing 20 per cent of its fuel mix by biomass.

"One of the main features of it [biomass] is that it can be ground with coal or petcoke on a conventional mill. This allows pellets to be blended with conventional fuels, milled in an existing mill, transported to [the] combustion point using existing fuel transport systems, and combusted using existing combustion processes which means complete homogenisation of the fuel mix, which leads to the stability of kiln operation," said Hamada Ali, head of technical office and preventative maintenance at El Nahda Cement.

Fuel prices
In Egypt biomass pellets are seen as a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels and cost US$80-100/t. Much of the biomass can be created as a byproduct from the sugar industry. Biomass is an option that cement producers can turn to when the cost rises for traditional fuels such as coal, petcoke or HFO (Mazut). The Egyptian cement sector has seen volatile fuel prices, while the government has reduced fuel subsidies, so biomass is a viable alternative and supplement to traditional fossil fuels.

Currently the El Nahda Cement plant uses about 100,000tpa of biomass, but this could rise eventually to 150,000tpa. Suez Cement (HeidelbergCement) started using biomass for the first time in April 2019 and aims to use 75,000t by the end of 2019.

EU Trading scheme and emissions
When Phase 4 of the EU ETS (2021-30) comes into force in Europe, the region's cement producers will be challenged by more restrictive emissions quota. However, the move towards lowering emissions is well underway. In Spain biomass is seen as a clean way of producing cement with less CO2 emissions. In 2018 The Cementos Alfa plant (Portland Valderrivas group) prevented 31,000t of CO2 being emitted from its Mataporquera plant in Cantabria after using 150tpd of biomass.

Renewable power
The cement industry's growing need for reliable power provides opportunities to consider renewable power, including biomass, to run its plants. Tokyo Cement in Sri Lanka opened its second biomass power plant at Trincomalee in May 2017. This 23MW power plant contributes 70GWh per year to the national grid and produces 160,000MWh of renewable energy for Tokyo Cement annually.

A bigger 75MW power plant is curently being built for the Taiheyo Cement Corp's Ofunato cement plant in Japan, which will use palm kernel shells for its biomas fuel. The project is due to come on-stream in the autumn of 2019.

Summary
Some of the limiting factors of biomass centre around its ability to be sustainable and the amount of land required to farm crops so that heavy industry can be supplied with sufficient biomass on a continued basis. This may make countries in Africa more able to develop biomass in the future than in Europe, where land is more valuable. So it could be that countries like Ethiopia can become the flag bearers of biomass research and development, leading the cement industry in this area in the coming years.

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