What’s In the Mix: The VC-Funded Cement Disruptor That’s Cracked Concrete’s Climate Conundrum
In an age of widespread brick-and-mortar disruption, it’s high time to disrupt the actual mortar. For the past decade-plus, Solidia Technologies, a New Jersey-based, venture-capital-funded cement and concrete technology company, has been hard at work addressing construction’s shoddy environmental record by looking beyond just the emissions problem to take on the industry’s total resource footprint — as well as the dynamics of the industry at large.
“My hypothesis for the last two decades has been that sustainability is really about competitiveness — whoever figures out how to do it better for less in a resource-constrained world wins,” says Solidia CEO Tom Schuler.
Solidia may be the ace in this race to do more and do better for less — and do it globally. Current investors in the company — now in its Series C funding round — include VC juggernaut Kleiner Perkins and industry giants BASF, LafargeHolcim, BP and Air Liquide.
Its patent portfolio is extensive, spanning composition of matter to chemistry to process to product — or, as Schuler puts it: “If you’re trying to carbonate concrete, you’re going to touch one of our patents.”
While cement has been around in some form since antiquity, today’s concoction of sand, rocks, aggregate, additives and water has been mostly left alone since the advent of Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC) in the 1800’s.
But its problems are becoming well-documented and hard to ignore. It’s water-intensive — by 2050, it is estimated that 75% of water demand for cement will come from water-stressed areas. It uses more energy than any other manufacturing industry. And it throws off a ton of carbon dioxide (CO2), more than the aviation industry and almost as much as global agriculture.
To credibly address any of these issues, Schuler says, it’s important to understand the way the industry works in sum. While cement tends to be produced locally — typically within a 250-mile radius of where the raw materials are extracted — certain dynamics are universal.
Cement and concrete are — like fraternal twins — always together but not the same. While cement is the glue that holds concrete together, making them inseparable, the emissions problem is inherent to cement — not concrete — production. And because producers of cement and concrete are not always integrated in the same company, this creates an asymmetry in each side’s incentive to respond to the environmental challenge posed by their shared product. As a result, Schuler says, something of value has to be offered to cement and concrete makers alike, beyond just green platitudes.
Technologies already exist to mitigate some of cement’s carbon emissions problem. One, which Solidia deploys as well, is the use of carbonization that uses CO2 itself to strengthen concrete, yielding lower net emissions in the manufacturing process.
But where Solidia diverges from other cement disruptors is address the role of water and energy consumption in the production chain. In traditional OPC manufacturing, raw materials are fired in a kiln at around 1450°C to produce clinker, the dry base from which cement is made. Hydration marks the introduction of water to create a sticky cement mixture which is then cured with steam and left to harden over an idle period of roughly 28 days.
Solidia’s cement is fired at a lower temperature (1250°C), mixed with virtually no water additive, and uses no steam to cure, substantially reducing its energy and water footprint, and cutting the curing period from 28 days to around 24 hours.
The bigger pitch: water and energy
The absence of water also reduces the amount of work hours spent cleaning equipment from a full workday to a matter of roughly 15 minutes. For concrete companies, this manpower efficiency enables just-in-time delivery, the production efficiency traditionally seen in the automobile and other assembly line industries.
Where typical concrete firms turn over their inventory 3 or 4 times per year, Schuler says Solidia’s cement has yielded a 30% improvement in inventory turnover. Additionally, the product is more durable due to effect of carbonization, is more aesthetically pleasing, and avoids efflorescence, or discoloration, which is seen with traditional concrete.
According to Solidia, changes to cement production in any single market are unlikely to make a significant dent on the global impact of the material. Only a pervasive shift in the method of production across many markets can do that. And only a better quality product at a lower price will incentivize global buyers.
The global buyers
Enter China, currently home to 60% of the world’s total cement consumption, with 2.2 billion tons used annually, compared to 110 million tons used each year in the United States, which could be Solidia’s next market rollout.
According to Schuler, water and energy cost savings — not the emissions profile — have been the distinguishing driver of interest in Solidia cement from China and the Middle East, where building needs are acute and these resources are scarcer and costlier than in the U.S.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., there’s a good chance that the first large-scale domestic infrastructure project to feature Solidia cement will be a highway. The company is part of a multi-year initiative with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s federal testing lab to explore the use of Solidia in road projects in several states nationwide.