What is a cement plant for?

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In case you missed it, last week we covered a news story about Taiheiyo Cement’s plans to step up its lithium-ion battery recycling business at its integrated Tsuruga plant. It’s the latest step in the Japan-based cement producer’s collaboration with recycling company Matsuda Sangyo. The work is timely given that electric cars accounted for 2.6% of global car sales in 2019 and this share is growing. Many of these electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries and moving away from fossil fuel powered transport creates new problems such as how to manage old batteries that can no longer be used.

Figure 1: Lithium-ion battery recycling process by Taiheiyo Cement and Matsuda Sangyo. Source: Translated from Taiheiyo Cement CEMS technical magazine.

Figure 1: Lithium-ion battery recycling process by Taiheiyo Cement and Matsuda Sangyo. Source: Translated from Taiheiyo Cement CEMS technical magazine.

Taiheiyo Cement and Matsuda Sangyo have been working on their process since 2011. First, they dismantle the batteries to extract base metals and plastics. They then heat the batteries in a dedicated ‘roaster’ using waste heat from the cement production process, before crushing and sorting them to remove cobalt, lithium, aluminium and scrap iron. Hydrogen fluoride produced in this stage is sent to the kiln where it is detoxified by calcium. Remaining elements from the battery that are not reclaimed are then used as an alternative fuel by the cement plant.

Taiheiyo Cement says that its roasting equipment can process up to 10t/day but it’s difficult at this stage to assess what demand for this service they might encounter. If, one estimate of 2m/yr used lithium-ion batteries by 2030 is correct and Taiheiyo Cement’s processing rate doesn’t get much higher, then 500 cement plants could possibly solve this problem. Yet, Taiheiyo Cement and Matsuda Sangyo have made no mention of the economics of their process. Other recycling methods also exist and research into new ones is ongoing. Cement plants recycling batteries might be economic compared to these alternatives or it might not, only time will tell.

The wider point here is that here is yet another industrial and logistical process that can potentially be linked to cement production. It follows well known ones, such as using alternatives fuels or captive power plants, or more novel ones, such as CO2 or hydrogen networks. In each case the business of making cement changes as new methods are learned, new commodities are sought and new markets are connected. The cement company then has a choice about how involved it wants to become with each new process. The classic example here is the waste processing companies that surround co-processing, with some cement companies having their own dedicated subsidiaries, for example LafargeHolcim and Geocycle.

As it all becomes more complicated the role of a cement plant slowly becomes redefined. If a cement plant disposes of municipal waste and car batteries for its local community, generates electricity from its solar or wind plant for a nearby city and uses its CO2 to either produce biofuels, plastics or baking soda is it still just a cement plant? The pivot by building materials manufacturers in recent years from a focus on cement to concrete suggests that once the societal or economic conditions are right it could change. For the time being cement plants remain cement plants but give it a thought next time you buy a new car.

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