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Swedish startup: We are the Tesla of the cement industry

November 16, 2023
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Swedish startup: We are the Tesla of the cement industry

In November, Cemvision starts demo production of green cement – completely without carbon dioxide emissions. The facility is financed by Bill Gates, who will support the Swedish startup for one more year.

Claes Kollberg was well aware that the cement industry was a major climate villain when he was a freshly graduated engineer. That’s why he applied to Cementa, as the company was called then.

– I wanted to enter the worst industry and try to make a difference. Also, I wanted to work in Africa, where I had done my master thesis, and at KTH’s job market days, Cementa had a map with lots of dots in Africa, he says.

We meet in Degerhamn on Öland at Cementa’s former cement factory. The autumn wind is chilling; the enclosed area looks deserted. Heidelberg Materials, as the company is now called, has ceased its operations in the plant. But when Claes Kollberg started here as a trainee in 2002, production was in full swing, and carbon dioxide was billowing from the chimney. When he left the company 15 years later, he was factory manager. In the meantime, he spent five years in Africa to build and renovate cement factories in Tanzania and Gabon. He also started algae farming in Morocco, where the algae were fed with carbon dioxide from a factory’s flue gases.

Indeed, emissions were reduced during his years at the company. But in 2018, Claes Kollberg chose to go to Vattenfall and the Swedish green steel venture Hybrit.

– I wanted to work in an industry where the development towards fossil-free moved faster, he says.

Two years later, he made a comeback in the cement industry. This time, as co-founder of Cemvision, which he started with Paul Sandberg and Marcus Olsson, who also have heavy backgrounds in the cement business. Their inspiration came from how Tesla managed to accelerate the fossil-loving automotive industry.

– To say that we are the Tesla of the cement industry might sound cliché. Still, we are also a player who wants to accelerate the green transformation with new solutions in a traditional industry, says Claes Kollberg.

Cemvision’s solution is to “mix with the chemistry” in new cement recipes without virgin limestone, which is the problematic ingredient in common so-called Portland cement. When limestone is heated, carbon dioxide bound in the Earth’s crust for millions of years is released. Additional emissions come from enormous kilns heated with fossil fuels.

– Our raw materials are recycled from industrial waste, the temperature and energy consumption are significantly lower than in traditional cement production, and our kilns will be powered by green electricity, summarizes Claes Kollberg.

Otherwise, the company is secretive about the details. But the technology has been reviewed by heavy experts, who gave the thumbs up. Among thousands of applicants, Cemvision receives support from Bill Gates’ climate fund Breakthrough Energy. This is after extensive due diligence of technology, business potential, and founders.

The fund finances Cemvision’s research, development, pilot, and demo trials for two years starting September 2022. In addition, the company gains access to a large expert network. Last summer, an important milestone was reached when the company produced its first fossil-free cement clinkers on a larger scale – one ton per day – entirely based on recycled material from the mining and steel industries.

In November, a larger demo plant will be operated at a secret location in Central Europe. In addition to the rotary kiln, the facility includes all the process steps in a small cement factory with the capacity to produce 12 tons per day.

The next technical challenge is to electrify the kilns. Plasma technology and hydrogen will be tested, for example. At the same time, trial castings are underway in cooperation with concrete manufacturers and users. The partners' names are not public except for the Nordic constructor Peab, whose subsidiary Swecem has invested in Cemvision.

Since last year, the number of employees has increased from four to twelve, and Claes Kollberg hopes to have significantly more colleagues joining soon. The company wants to raise around 10-12 million euros to build the organization required for a large-scale cement producer.

– Our ambition is to produce 5 million tons of cement by 2030 and grow globally, says Claes Kollberg.

However, the company will never be able to replace all the Portland cement worldwide. The by-products used as raw materials will “only” suffice for 25 percent of global production. Claes Kollberg is therefore clear that more solutions are needed to reduce the cement industry’s emissions, including capture and storage of carbon dioxide, CCS, which Heidelberg Materials wants to invest billions of Swedish kronor in.

– We support everyone who does something instead of just talking. But CCS is far too expensive and energy-intensive to be a realistic alternative in, for example, Africa, where the most construction is taking place.

Where will your first factory be located?

– The fastest way to get started is to use existing cement factories that are not in operation or where the limestone is running out. There, the environmental permits are in place, and the staff is trained.

As here in Degerhamn?

– Anyone who owns factories that are not in operation is welcome to contact us, says Claes Kollberg diplomatically and continues:
– We need to get started quickly to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Humanity’s survival depends on it.

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