While we see around us disruptive technologies bringing value to users, cement is a product where we have seen only incremental advancements. Will the cement industry witness a disruptive innovation?
If you were traveling through Cappadocia in Turkish Anatolia, you might see many pigeonholes built into the rock-cut dwellings of 5th century BC. If you were curious enough to ask, the guide will inevitably tell you that pigeons were very useful to olden day Cappadocians, in that they carried messages over long distances, and pigeon meat was a good source of protein for them. What was more interesting was that these people used powdered pigeon egg shells as a binder for construction. This will strike a student of construction history as (maybe) one of the earliest known examples of synthesised construction material. Today, as we, the co-habitants of a planet called Earth, are pursuing sustainable development, we once again need a synthetic and more sustainable alternative to our traditional cement which has been used as a faithful binder for the last two centuries. We need to find a material that will use less or no natural resources like limestone and coal and gypsum.
Cement as a product, and also as an industry, has been much maligned (maybe even as much as the fossil fuel-based power sector). due to its carbon emission intensity as much as the fossil fuel based power industry. In case of power generation, we have found more sustainable alternatives like renewable, nuclear, hydro, etc. What alternatives have we found to cement thus far? Let us take the competing construction materials, such as concrete, wood, steel, glass and aluminium ´ although all of these may not be real replacements for each other in all applications. According to one study I had chanced upon, concrete, among these options, had the lowest carbon footprint through its life-cycle. Clearly, here we have a case of a civilization which ought to be running in search of a sustainable option to cement concrete. But, are we really chasing such innovations with all the energy at our command?
Sooner or later, science and technology have always succeeded in finding solutions to our emerging needs. Here, in this case, inventing a greener cement is not going to be an exception either. This can, however, happen along one of two pathways (or, maybe both ) ´ incremental or disruptive. The incremental innovations are already working, as we can see in higher fly ash or slag absorption, higher usage of alternative fuels, or higher levels of fuel efficiency. It is debatable if these improvements are being driven by the imperatives of climate change or by the compulsions of cost competitiveness. In any case, the end result is good. But what about disruptive possibilities? Are we spending enough resources on finding a synthesised cement which does not use depleting natural resources, or does not emit CO2 during its life-cycle? Do we see a lot of commercial grade pilot tests from the industry, or do we only have universities struggling on shoestring budgets? Our guest author, Dr Anjan Chatterjee, who is an eminent specialist on Materials Science, explores this topic for us in the following pages.
Sumit Banerjee Chairman, Editorial Advisory Board