Cement and steel are the most manufactured commodities in the UK by mass, however both sectors are under pressure to help the UK meet its carbon targets. The steel sector in particular is struggling to reduce the cost of its overheads to be competitive in the global market, and is considered a priority for the UK government.
The cement industry 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 isn’t utilised, and that which is utilised finds its way into low value products.
Researchers from Sheffield University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering are developing processes and technologies for incorporating iron-rich by-products from the steel industry and utilising them in cement processing.
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. If this bulk material could be substituted for an alternative, this could significantly reduce cement’s environmental impact.
Iron is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth's crust, and industrial by-products such as steel slags can contain significant amounts of it.
Starting in June 2022, the project will be named ‘FeRICH: developing iron-rich cement for the valorisation and upcycling of steel slags’. It will assess ways to upcycle the by-products of the steel industry leading to iron-rich elements, and the formulation of final cement and concrete products which can be adopted by the construction industry.
The team said properties of these products will be developed at multiple levels to improve their electrical and magnetic functionality through the inclusion of iron-rich materials. This functionality may be exploited throughout the material’s lifetime — manufacturing, service life and end-of-life — with a view to develop intelligent infrastructure.
“We are leading the revolution of alternative raw materials for UK cement manufacturing,” said Dr Theodore Hanein, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at Sheffield. “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.”
As well as reducing both industries’ environmental impact, researchers believe the information generated will allow the steel industry to modify and design its manufacturing processes for enhanced recycling of by-products.
The team also plans to generate a database of new material data to enhance data-driven manufacturing and intelligent infrastructure, shared publicly through a dedicated web platform.
FeRICH is supported by industry and academic partners including 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).