Ferno claims ultra-efficient, modular kilns will disrupt the cement industry


For every 1,000 kg of cement produced in the world, 600 kg of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that last year the world made about 4.2 billion metric tons of cement, a quantity so large that it is responsible for about 8% of all carbon pollution.

It’s a big problem that weighed on Gurinder Nagra’s mind as a graduate student at Stanford University. It wasn’t the focus of his PhD – that would be carbon capture and storage – but he couldn’t stop thinking about it. When he took a class on energy ventures three different times over two years, “each time the focus was on cement,” he told TechCrunch.

It was not just pollution that troubled Nagara. “Emissions are one aspect. The second thing is that it is just an overlooked, dirty industry, but it is essential for modern civilization. It’s everywhere,” he said. Doing something with cement could have a much bigger impact than climate change.

“The companies that control the supply of cement in the background pretty much run the world. Not as much as the oil industry, but they have a lot of power,” he said. “It costs a billion dollars to build a new plant. If a company decides to build a plant in a developing economy or a developing country, that company has control over the destiny of the trajectory of that developing economy.”

So, after completing his degree in 2020, Nagra founded Ferno. The goal was simple but ambitious: to upend the cement industry.

Many developing countries are not able to finance a new plant or entice a company to build a plant, so they import cement and pay heavy prices in the process. “You find that, in many developing economies, they actually pay more for cement than in developed economies, sometimes three to four times the market price.”

Ferno’s answer was to develop a cement kiln that was smaller, more efficient and more flexible than the large kilns favored by the industry today. Each unit may produce less output than today’s industry standard designs, but it promises to be cheaper to build and use less energy to run.

Ferno’s small kilns are facing the trends of the cement industry today, which is constantly chasing larger equipment. Larger rotary kilns can reduce operating costs, although in the process, new plants have become so large that each is essentially a specialized installation that incurs large labor costs to build. By building smaller kilns, Ferno is hoping to reduce capital expenses through large-scale production and operating expenses through energy efficiency.

Here’s how: Portland cement, the most commonly used type, is usually produced by heating calcium-rich minerals from limestone. Those minerals are sent through a kiln, where they are heated to more than 1,110 degrees Fahrenheit (600 degrees Celsius), almost always using fossil fuels. The process of calcination, as it is known, produces lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide. There are other stages in a modern cement plant, but this is the most important. Raw materials enter one end of the kiln, which is positioned horizontally, and are pushed by an intense flame to the other end, where they emerge as clinker.

Kilns today are not very efficient. A study in China showed that only 30% of the heat in the kiln drives the calcination reaction; Everything else was lost. “If you’re standing 40 feet away from the kiln, you can feel the heat spreading across the walls of the unit,” Nagra said.

Ferno’s kiln, on the other hand, is far more efficient, reducing emissions from fossil fuels by 70% or more. It fires the kiln by turning it vertically, filling it with ground material according to specified dimensions, and then leaking combustible gas (natural gas, biogas, or hydrogen) into it. By varying the amount of gas and oxygen flowing through the column, the furnace is able to control where the flame occurs inside, ensuring that more heat exits the furnace rather than powering the calcination process. Is. Less fuel means less pollution, and carbon capture can help reduce emissions further. Raw material continuously flows into the top of the kiln, and clinker falls to the bottom.

Additionally, because the flame front inside the furnace can be more precisely controlled, the company has a way to use recycled cement from old concrete, Nagra said. Since recycled cement has already been calcined, the kiln will not need to use as much fuel. And because Ferno kilns are small, they can allow the cement to be remade at the construction site.

That approach has helped Ferno raise a $6.5 million seed round, TechCrunch has exclusively learned. The round was led by Energy Capital Ventures with participation from Cantos, NeoTribe and O’Shaughnessy Ventures.

Ferno has already attracted the attention of ready-mix concrete companies, which have to buy cement from vertically integrated companies. “They have to buy cement from their competitors, which really doesn’t make for a very fair market.” Modular furnaces offer them a chance to regain some control over their destiny.

Ferno’s focus on furnaces and the software that controls them sets them apart from many of their competitors, who instead focus on altering the chemical reaction. By improving the furnace and leaving the rest largely alone, Ferno may find it easier to sell to an industry that is not accustomed to change.

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