The Vanishing Limeston

The Vanishing Limeston

Limestone mining is at the beginning of the cement story. In all our discussions on branding, logistics, alternative fuels and energy efficiency, we seem to have forgotten that cement is ultimately a mineral-based industry, completely dependent on a naturally-occurring resource called limestone. And, therefore, at its root, cement industry is all about geological prospecting, concessioning and mining of limestone, in the right quality and quantity without which, there will be no cement. Talking about upstream of the cement value chain, we can say that limestone is its Gangotri. So, dear reader, we wanted to devote this issue of your favourite magazine, to mining of limestone. We hope you will agree, that it is quite a timely thought, particularly given the current regulatory controversies around licensing of deposits.

While our cover story talks about mining issues and challenges, I would like to supplement that with some thoughts about resources. Just like all naturally-occurring minerals including the more high-profile fossil fuels, limestone also is non-renewable and depleting fast. So fast, that one study has indicated that going by the current trends, by the year 2050, there will be hardly any unattached limestone deposits left in our country for further expansion of cement manufacturing capacity, going by deposits and reserves known today. This is an ominous piece of information for all stakeholders, i.e., cement industry, consumers such as builders, contractors, construction companies and even individuals, regulators and governments and everyone else connected to the industry. How do we deal with such a future scenario? I feel that there are not one but three promising pathways to address and alleviate this potentially problematic situation. Firstly, we need to speed up discovery of new deposits, and this can be only done by incentivising prospecting, which as we all know, is a risky business and the rewards must be high to attract private participation and investment. Secondly, the cement industry must work much much harder to develop cement alternatives/substitutes that consume less limestone - each tonne of limestone must go that extra mile to produce more cement. This can be done, to begin with, by increasing the absorption of fly ash and slag in cement. Lastly, we can conserve limestone reserves by optimising our mine planning, and make our deposits last longer, if we do software-based optimisation of limestone composition, and blend lower and higher grades of limestone in suitable proportions to arrive at the required quality. This approach requires deployment of modern tools like mine planning software and online radioactive limestone quality analysers mounted on conveyor belts.

In this three-pronged strategy to delay the inevitable end of limestone reserves, evidently, the first one is a policy reformation issue where the government of the day has to act, to promote investment and risk taking, in exploration, not only of limestone, but for all naturally-occurring resources. The last one is an obvious tactical measure to be adopted by cement manufacturers. It is the second item, the possible tweaking of cement process and product technology to get more cement with less use of limestone, is most interesting, and has the potential of being a game changer. Herein lies the future of cement, and India being the second largest cement player in the world, has a role to play in this research and innovation. Therefore, in the days to come, you may find that the Indian Cement Review will be spending more pages on the future of cement.

Talking about mining and natural resources in the context of cement industry, we cannot overlook coal. Coal market is undergoing upheavals in our country, in addition to the fact that coal is also in the trough of its commodity cycle. Some cement companies have acquired coal mines through auction, and some others may be aspiring to do so in near future. Superimpose that on government´s decision to phase out fuel supply agreements by 2017, and you have a potboiler. In coming issues, we plan to delve into fuel issues of the cement sector.

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