Making cement from biomass energy

Lafarge North America Inc., the continent’s largest maker of cement, hasn’t made many friends within environmental groups. In Ontario, for example, the company has aggressively pursued a plan to burn old tires to provide energy for its cement-making operations. While there’s much debate over the value of doing this — some, including the U.S. Department of Energy, argue that burning rubber tires is better environmentally than burning coal or oil — clearly the idea of burning tires rather than recycling them into other useful products is frowned upon by many.

Perhaps in an attempt to green up its image, Lafarge announced this week it has partnered with Kingston, Ont.-based Performance Plants Inc., a biotech firm that has patented processes for growing certain non-food crops and grasses on unproductive farmland and with the ability to withstand extended droughts and heat waves. Under its four-year partnership with Performance Plants, Lafarge will grow and develop clean-energy biomass grasses and woods for use as fuel at its cement plant in Bath, Ontario. “Our challenges with biomass and biofuel energy are maximization of crop yields, crop consistency and cost efficiency,” explains Peter Matthewman, president of Performance Plants. “This is where our technology will be instrumental to develop next generation seeds that are customized for specific industrial users looking for alternative clean energy sources.”

Lafarge says non-food grass crops were planted in late May and early June on 25 acres of land near its Bath cement plant. Perennial species, such as Miscanthus and switchgrass, were planted alongside sorghum and maize. A local farmer in the area who leases the land from Lafarge is overseeing the crops and will harvest it for the plant. Later in the season they plan to plant willow and industrial hemp. Once harvested, the biomass will be processed into fuel pellets and used at the Lafarge plant to fire its cement kiln. The company said it expects to conduct the first trial burn in fall 2009.

What I like about this approach, assuming the company is serious, is that it creates a local fuel supply chain. The crops are grown near the plant, reducing the need to transport old tires or fossil fuels. And it’s using land that’s otherwise useless for growing food crops. It would be nice to see this approach replicated across other industrial sites throughout the continent where possible. It would be ever better if companies such as CO2 Solution could come up with an economical way for industrial users to capture their CO2 output and convert it into products such as baking soda or calcium carbonate. This would make what Lafarge is doing a carbon-negative proposition.

Let’s just hope it’s not greenwashing.

UPDATE: Lafarge’s attempts to stop an environmental hearing that is looking into the company’s plan to burn tires has been rejected by an Ontario Divisional Court. Looks like Lafarge, faced with mounting scrutiny of its tire-burning plan in Ontario, may be wise to aggressively pursue its biomass strategy.