LEILAC's reactor captures CO2 produced during cement production. Image: Heidelberg Cement / LEILAC LEILAC's reactor captures CO2 produced during cement production. Image: Heidelberg Cement / LEILAC

The debrief: How a Belgian cement plant is blazing a trail to net-zero emissions

The cement industry has a long journey ahead if it is to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. One carbon capture demonstration project shows a possible way forward

PROJECT Low Emissions Intensity Lime and Cement (LEILAC)

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED HeidelbergCement Group, Cemex, Tarmac, Lhoist, Amec Foster Wheeler, Calix, ECN, PSE, Quantis, Carbon Trust, Imperial College London

When it comes to tackling climate change, the cement industry presents a huge problem for policymakers. Turning calcium carbonate – the basic ingredient of cement – into lime not only requires huge amounts of energy, it also releases carbon dioxide as an unavoidable consequence of the chemical reaction 

Low carbon alternatives to cement are thin on the ground. And so with many European cement companies committed to a net zero future, the race is on to develop climate-friendly production techniques. One avenue the industry is now seriously exploring involves carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS), which would take the CO2 emitted from lime production and either store it underground or sell it on as a raw material for other industries. 

A cement plant in Belgium is at the cutting edge of the industry efforts to develop the technology. Lying on the banks of the Albert Canal, the Lixhe plant, operated by German cement giant HeidelbergCement, is home to the world’s first reactor capable of extracting carbon dioxide from the production process.

The reactor is the outcome of the LEILAC project, developed by a consortium of industry players and research groups and part funded by the European Union.

It is also the fruit of an international partnership that has brought together cement giants with an Australian technology company, German contractors, British and Dutch researchers and French engineers. 

Although still dwarfed by Lixhe’s vast main installation, the 60 metre-tall reactor shows that carbon capture technology can be successfully used in the cement industry, with plans now under development for a second, larger project.

Building the partnership

Jan Theulen, the director of alternative resources at Heidelberg cement, has been a driving force behind the project. Back in 2014, he was approach by Calix, an Australian company that had designed a commercial magnesium carbonate reactor equipped with carbon capture technology. 

“They had the idea: why could we not apply our reactor to the cement industry?” Theulen recalls. “They went to Europe to find a partner who wanted to team up with them. And that’s when they proposed it to us at HeidelbergCement. I was keen for such a step in our carbon capture development. And from there on we supported them to get other partners on board.”

Together, HeidelbergCement and Calix built up an international network of partners to join the project consortium, involving other global cement producers, engineers, consultants and researchers.

Assembling the consortium was far from plain sailing. “That was very tough. A lot of industry players, like HeidelbergCement, are conservative in general.” Even the prospect of EU funding did not make it an easy sell. “All these groups are trying to minimise their headquarters staff and their engineers – so they’re lean in resources,” he adds. “They don’t want to be playing with things that are nice to do but don’t deliver added value.”

What convinced them was the fact Calix had already designed a commercial plant in Australia. “It’s a company that is used to making money and that speaks the language of companies like ours,” says Theulen. 

Daniel Rennie, who coordinated the project for Calix, agrees that it was difficult to get people on board. “It really is due to the championing of the technology by people like Jan and some of his technical advisers,” he says. The promise of EU funding helped, as did the prospect of potential future returns and the relatively low cost of the new reactor design. 

“There are no additional processes, no additional chemicals involved,” Rennie says. “It’s just a new type of kiln design which means that the CO2 just gets intrinsically separated. It’s cold when it comes out and it’s very pure.” That makes it a potentially valuable raw material for existing niche markets, such as carbonated drinks, greenhouses and mineralisation in the cement industry.

Once HeidelbergCement had committed, other companies soon followed. “I think HeidelbergCement has a reputation of being a large, solid German building company, not tapping into too many risky adventures,” Theulen says. “So if this ‘solid German company’ says ‘well, this might make sense’ then it’s something else than if a sexy start-up company from Silicon Valley comes over and says, ‘I have a fantastic idea.’”

Future of CCUS

The success of LEILAC means that a second project is now in the pipeline, the imaginatively named LEILAC 2. This new reactor, which will be around a fifth of the size of a commercial cement plant, will have more of a focus on the ultimate destination for the extracted CO2, integrating the reactor into the existing cement making process and possibly electrifying the heat required for clinker production.

“Now we see it has more strategic value to be involved in the project,” says Theulen. And it has become a key part of his company’s CCUS project portfolio. “Five years ago, that portfolio simply did not exist.”

LEILAC 2 will not be built at Lixhe, but will retain around half of the partners from its predecessor, with Calix and HeidelbergCement still at its core. It is expected to be complete by the mid 2020s, with one further step needed before a full-size commercial plant with CCUS can begin construction – from 2030. 

“We want to be ready with the technology once the [carbon] price is there to make it commercially viable,” Theulen adds. In the meantime, “it’s a bit of fighting your way through. But if we don’t do it now, and we wait until the carbon price is €100 per tonne, then we’d need another 10 years to do it.”


FOUR PRACTICAL LESSONS 

1. Leave room for creativity

Adapting Calix’s technology and keeping the project to budget was a huge challenge. LEILAC received €12m in funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation fund and £9m through in-kind services by consortium partners. But after carrying out the initial designs, the consortium found it was €3m over budget. Project coordinators “had to sit together and really bring all our creativity together”, says Theulen, “and we came to an even better design, within budget.” 

2. Leadership structure is key

Theulen stresses that not all partners in the LEILAC project had an equal say in decisions. Research institutes, with no financial resources on the line, “should not have the same voting rights as a company like Calix”, he says. It is also important that partners leading on the project are trusted to make the right decisions. 

3. Be open to external advice

The European Commission’s input helped the consortium refine its proposal. Applying for Horizon 2020 funding, while often presented as bureaucratic hoop-jumping, enabled the project leaders to identify weaknesses in their proposal, resulting in a “much better balanced project”, Theulen says. The whole grant process was relatively straightforward, recalls Rennie. “I can’t say anything bad about the Commission.”

4. Have a clear vision

Focusing on the long-term prospects of the project has helped the team overcome the major technical and organisational hurdles it faced, says Renne. “The main problem I see with most proposals,” he explains, “is it’s usually about what the main risks are and trying to address those, which we do. But actually having that long-term vision of where we want to get to provides a shared understanding for all of the partners.” 

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