UK startup scores £1M for carbon-negative cement

Novacem, a spin out from Imperial Innovations, thinks its technology could transform the cement industry from an emitter to an absorber of carbon dioxide.

London-based Novacem said it has raised more than £1 million ($1.7 million) in equity to commercialize its carbon-negative cement for the building industry.

The funds are expected to be used to help Novacem grow its team and complete a pilot plant before the end of 2009 to accelerate the development and commercialization of its product—a new generation of cement based on research from Imperial College London’s civil and environmental engineering department.

Novacem is spinout from the Imperial Innovations group, which brings together technology transfer, incubation and investment to get new innovations to market.

A syndicate of investors in yesterday’s round included Imperial Innovations, London Technology Fund, and the Royal Society Enterprise Fund, marking Royal Society’s first investment. The national philanthropic Royal Society fund was started last year to invest in early-stage technology with the potential to cause environmental change.

Novacem has also received financial support from the UK government, which made a £20 million investment in 2008 in 21 projects that are developing cleantech-related manufacturing processes (see Cleantech manufacturing projects in U.K. get £20M).

The annual production of more than 2.5 billion tons of Portland cement—the world’s most common type of cement for general use—is responsible for 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to Novacem. Cement volumes are expected to double by 2050.

In contrast to Portland cement which is based on limestone (calcium carbonate), Novacem said its magnesium oxide-based cement absorbs more carbon dioxide during its lifecycle than it emits. Novacem’s technology converts magnesium silicates into magnesium oxide using a low-carbon, low-temperature process, and then includes special mineral additives to produce Novacem cement.

Novacem estimates that for every ton of ordinary Portland cement replaced by Novacem cement, around 0.75 ton of carbon dioxide could be captured and stored indefinitely in construction products—transforming the cement industry from an emitter to an absorber of carbon dioxide.

Other companies are taking a different approach to cleaner cement. In April, Masdar City said it was working with Abu Dhabi-based Al Falah Holding to develop a low-carbon concrete that uses less cement (see Madsar City and Al Falah co-develop clean concrete). Cement powder is formed using the energy-intensive calcine process, which accounts for a significant portion of concrete’s environmental footprint. By reducing the amount of cement powder used in concrete, the joint developers hope to decrease the embodied carbon by 30 percent. The pair said they plan to develop a way to offset the remaining carbon footprint.

Another company, Los Gatos, Calif.-based Calera, is making cement by sequestering carbon dioxide, mirroring the process that coral uses to create its shells and reefs (see You say Calera, I say Caldeira).

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