16 December 2021

New material research aims to reduce the environmental impact of both cement and steel industries.

Taking waste products from the steel industry and using them as a base material for cement production will lessen the environmental impact of both industries and reduce the dependence on raw materials that result in the release of carbon dioxide.

Cement works

A research project, recently awarded funding by UKRI's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will aim to combine waste material from one energy intensive engineering process, with the base materials for another, to reduce the overall environmental impact of both industries.

Cement and steel are the most manufactured commodities in the UK (by mass); they are the backbone of our infrastructure and economy. However, both sectors are under pressure to help the UK meet its carbon targets. In particular, the steel sector is struggling to reduce the cost of its overheads to be competitive in the global market, and as such, is considered a priority for the UK government.

The cement industry is in desperate need for a review of its manufacturing processes - it is responsible for the extraction of more than 12 million tonnes per year of UK natural virgin resources. Meanwhile, the steel industry produces large amounts of waste, much of which is unutilised, and that which is utilised, finds its way into low value products.

Researchers from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield are developing processes and technologies for the sustainable manufacture of cement, by incorporating iron-rich by-products from the steel industry.

Current cement processing uses a significant amount of calcium in the form of limestone. When these calcareous (or chalky) materials are processed, almost half of the mass is released as CO2 which, as we know, is leading to climate change. If this bulk material could be substituted for an alternative, there would be a significant reduction on the environmental impact of cement.

Iron is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, so it is no surprise that industrial by-products (such as steel slags), as well as natural resources, can contain significant amounts of iron.

The research programme, which starts in June 2022, will be known as 'FeRICH: developing iron-rich cement for the valorisation and upcycling of steel slags'. It will look at ways to upcycle the by-products of the steel industry, leading to the production of iron-rich cements, and the formulation of final cement and concrete products, which can readily be adopted by the construction industry.

Furthermore, the properties of these products will be developed at multiple levels to improve their electrical and magnetic functionality through the inclusion of iron-rich materials, and this functionality may be exploited throughout the materials lifetime - manufacturing, service life, and end-of-life - with a view to the development of intelligent infrastructure.

Dr Theodore Hanein, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at Sheffield, commented, “It is an exciting time at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. We are leading the revolution of alternative raw materials for UK cement manufacturing. Outcomes of FeRICH will have universal outreach and impact, as the knowledge generated will develop new processes and materials that can be exploited across our planet and beyond.”

The creation of a symbiosis between the steel industry and the cement industry, which will come out of the FeRICH project, will bring down the overall environmental impact of both. It will drive the steel industry towards zero-waste and diminish the excavation and use of natural resources in cement production, thereby improving our resource efficiency through material circularisation.

The information generated will also enable the steel industry to modify and design their manufacturing processes for enhanced recycling of by-products. Furthermore, the project will generate new fundamental material data to enhance data-driven manufacturing and intelligent infrastructure. For the first time, the team will generate a database of this information and share it with the world through a dedicated web platform.

FeRICH is supported by key players from both the steel and cement sectors as well as academia. Project partners include: Hanson (Heidelberg Cement Group), British Steel (Jingye Steel (UK) Holdings Ltd.), VITO (Flemish Institute of Technology), and RWTH Aachen University (Institute of Building Materials Research).

Researchers working on the FeRICH project

The research team includes Dr Theodore Hanein (PI), Prof. John Provis, Prof. Nicola Morley, Dr Hajime Kinoshita, Dr Claire Utton, and Dr Sam Ghazizadeh, all based at the University of Sheffield.

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