The UK construction value chain finds itself at an important crossroads in the race to net zero. Change is necessary across the sector and manufacturers in energy intensive industries will be key to helping meet environmental targets. Here, Stephane Vissiere, Head of Major Projects and Energy at Wienerberger, examines the challenges facing brickmakers and outlines some of the new methods being used to help operate in a more energy efficient way.
Helping to reach net zero
Through the use of new production methods, the UK clay brick sector is steadily decarbonising its production and delivery processes, supporting the UK Government’s roadmap towards net zero. New eco-friendly methods include heat-capture for brick drying, biomass for kiln fuel and solar charging for ancillary activities. If we are to meet the net zero goals, these decarbonisation technologies must be developed and deployed at pace.
Clay bricks and the decarbonisation challenge
Clay is vital in making ceramic blocks, facing bricks and roof tiles. After the clay has been mined, we prepare it in an automated process that adds water and sand. For certain products, we also use pore-forming agents (a pyrolysis material which burns out during firing) such as sawdust, straw or sunflower seed shells. This enhances the bricks’ heat insulation qualities. Following this, the clay is pressed into shape by extruders and cut into pieces or shaped in an automated process. At the end of the process, the products are dried, baked and finally, packaged.
Decarbonising ceramics is crucial to achieve net zero by reducing emissions and supporting renewable energy components. However, high-energy gas furnaces and the drying process pose challenges for decarbonisation.
To overcome the obstacles, the key is to enhance manufacturing processes for efficiency. Achieving success as a manufacturer will rely on efforts to improve performance through taking on new solutions. While innovation in products is important, it’s crucial to recognise that innovation isn’t limited to new products or technologies alone. It also involves new approaches, novel ideas and ultimately more efficient use of existing processes to create a sustainable built environment for the future.
Leading ceramic manufacturers like Wienerberger are at the forefront of this transformation. By directly acknowledging and addressing these challenges and by fostering a culture of innovation, the industry can lead the way toward a more sustainable future. Let’s delve into some of the solutions we are developing to transform our operations.
At Wienerberger, we’ve recently announced a £30 million investment in Broomfleet, our clay roof-tile plant, which will see us become Europe’s first clay tile plant to eliminate the use of natural gas, eradicating associated emissions from drying and firing processes. This move will cut 75% of carbon emissions.
This move is positive, but not simple. There will be some challenges on the path to reach this goal, such as higher electricity costs. As electricity is more expensive than gas, we must look at the efficiency of our manufacturing processes, easing the impact of elevated costs without passing the cost onto our customers. To manage this, we must optimise manufacturing, making products lighter and more efficient. We’re also working on increasing our electricity supply, doubling it at Broomfleet., and to further minimise cost we’re exploring heat pump technology to recover energy from the drying process’s steam.
At Broomfleet, we’re pursuing sustainability through electrification, but not all products can easily switch from gas to electric kilns. So, we’re looking at using hydrogen as a cleaner fuel. This has two big advantages: it’s cost-effective and it fits with our existing kilns. Working closely with the British Ceramic Confederation and a consortium of manufacturers from various sectors in the ceramics industry, we’re examining the practicality of adopting hydrogen as a fuel.
The UK government supports hydrogen as a low-carbon option for high-temperature firing. However, hydrogen as a fuel also poses challenges like safety, availability and transportation. Most hydrogen is grey, coming from natural gas through a steam reforming process, meaning it has a higher carbon footprint. Green hydrogen, produced with renewables, is eco-friendly but limited in supply.
While hydrogen is part of our sustainability plan, we’re exploring other innovative solutions alongside this method to achieve our net zero goals.
Another solution we’re exploring is heat recovery. A report from Danfoss revealed huge excess heat in the EU, equivalent to the region’s heat and hot water energy needs. We’re investing in heat recovery systems to capture waste heat from our furnaces. By implementing these systems, we can pre-heat the air combustion for the burners, raising the air temperature up to 250°C. This approach reduces the amount of gas required for firing, contributing to greater energy efficiency.
Collaboration is key to advancing heat recovery solutions in the ceramic manufacturing industry. Working with other manufacturers in the steel and ceramics sectors, under the leadership of the Materials Processing Institute, we partner with organisations such as British Steel to enhance waste heat recovery from furnaces. By sharing expertise, we drive progress in heat recovery initiatives, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and sustainability across the industry.
Pursuing a sustainable future in ceramics
Manufacturers have a significant decision to make: do we take the lead in the journey to sustainability or follow the crowd? Despite the challenges, this is an opportunity for manufacturers to innovate and transform the industry. While bricks are a sustainable material, the way we’ve always made them isn’t, and processes must be modified. We’re not sticking with the same old ways; instead, we can join forces, rethink our strategies and build a more sustainable future for ceramic manufacturing.
For housebuilders, this means embracing the evolving landscape of brick manufacturing and incorporating more environmentally friendly bricks into their projects. This commitment will also resonate with the growing eco-awareness of modern homeowners. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity for housebuilders to align their values with those of conscientious consumers and lead the way in building a greener world.