Thad Druffel of the Conn Center

Researchers at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research in the J.B. Speed School of Engineering will spend the next two years on a project to transform the way cement is made.

In May, the researchers won $1 million from the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII) to find cheaper, more energy-efficient ways to produce portland cement, which is a critical component of concrete.

Portland cement is made by heating limestone to high temperatures and grinding it into a fine powder. The cement is mixed with water to make a paste, then further mixed with sand, gravel or crushed stone to make concrete. Total U.S. production of portland cement in 2017 was over 86.3 million metric tons, with energy costs of more than $7 billion.

The project’s goal is to transform the U.S. cement manufacturing industry by incorporating state-of-the-art monitoring, simulation and control systems that will significantly lower energy use, said Mahendra Sunkara, PhD, chemical engineering professor and director of the Conn Center, who led the effort to obtain the funding.

CESMII is a Los Angeles-based consortium of nearly 200 partners across academia, industry and non-profits that partners with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office. The Conn Center project is one of 10 funded by CESMII for a total of approximately $10 million.

The team at the Conn Center will be headed by W. Mark McGinley, PhD, endowed chair in infrastructure research and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Speed School. In addition to Sunkara, also on the team are Thad Druffel, PhD, theme leader for solar manufacturing research and development at the Conn Center; and Aly Farag and Michael McIntyre, professors of electrical and computer engineering.

“Energy is a significant portion of the cost of cement production,” said McGinley. “Controlling firing temperatures and times will reduce cost and environmental impacts. These improvements make this industry more viable through adoption of smart manufacturing technologies and processes, improve their product, and help the planet.”                                              

The project was one of 41 proposed to CESMII.

“This first set of projects will showcase the value and impact that smart manufacturing has across a broad set of industry opportunities” said Jim Wetzel, interim CEO of CESMII.  

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Janet Cappiello covers the College of Business, the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, the College of Education and Human Development, the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies, Sustainability Council and military initiatives for the Office of Communications and Marketing. She has more than 30 years’ experience in journalism, including working for The Associated Press and magazines such as Vegetarian Times and Sustainability: The Journal of Record. She has been at UofL since March 2014.