ACES Profile: A new green kid on the cement block

13 Apr 2010 | News
ACES winner Nikolaos Vlasopoulos is hoping to turn the cement industry upside down with a low-carbon, environmentally friendly variant of the old standby.

Nikolaos Vlasopoulos receives the ACES Award from Frank Brown, Dean of INSEAD, at the ceremony in Paris in December 2009.

Nikolaos Vlasopoulos saw the ins and outs of the cement business first hand as a young man, working at his uncle’s cement factory in his native Greece. Some of the processes used to make Portland cement – the most commonly used cement consisting of mainly concrete, mortar and stucco – haven’t changed for more than a century. But Vlasopoulos’ start-up, Novacem, is hoping to turn the industry upside down with a low-carbon, environmentally friendly variant of the old standby. The Science|Business Innovation Board gave the Imperial College spin-out top marks in the Energy/Environment category in the second annual ACES awards.

As with many inventions, Novacem’s core product came about more by accident than intent. In 2004, as a PhD candidate in sustainable construction materials at Imperial College, the environmental engineer took part in a joint project with Cambridge University to check out a promising new technology for reducing the carbon emitted in making cement. The business case was clear: about one tonne of carbon dioxide is released to make one tonne of cement – which explains why the cement industry is responsible for about 5 per cent of the world’s industrial output of CO2.

Vlasopoulos was to investigate claims by an Australian company that it had successfully come up with a more environmentally friendly cement alternative using magnesium oxide. But a year and a half into the project, he realized it did not live up to its promise. “It wasn’t as strong as cement, and the economic benefits were not there,” recalls Vlasopoulos.

He did not like the idea of focusing his doctorate on the failed product, however. With the help of some additional research grants, he and his supervisor at Imperial, Chris Cheeseman, decided to try to come with their own alternative cement.

By mid-2005, they were already seeing their first results. The cement uses magnesium silicates in a low-temperature process to produce magnesium oxide. Special mineral additives improve the resulting cement’s strength and C02 absorption. The product, they say, emits minimal CO2 in the manufacturing process and can be processed at far lower temperatures than Portland cement. In addition, as the cement hardens, it absorbs carbon in the atmosphere, making it a “carbon negative” product.

Vlasopoulos already had a keen interest in entrepreneurship, which made it a logical step to commercialise the invention. His interest went back to his time as an undergraduate in London, he says, when he helped his flatmates draw up a business plan to take part in a local business plan competition. “I already had some experience in trying to create a start-up. Without this exposure, I’m not sure I would have known what to do with my idea.”

Going to plan

In 2006, he represented Imperial College in several national and international business plan competitions, and the following year received a Technology Venture Fellowship at Tanaka Business School. That same year he founded Novacem with Cheeseman, with things moving quickly from there.

In 2008, Novacem raised £1 million in seed funding from Imperial Innovations, the London Technology Fund and the Royal Society Enterprise Fund in 2008 and added technology entrepreneur Stuart Evans as executive chairman. It is also expanding rapidly, having added 11 employees in the last six months of 2009 alone. “It’s very exciting to see a company come together at this stage,” says Vlasopoulos, who serves as Novacem’s Chief Scientist and sits on the board of directors.

But, as with other cleantech start-ups, the company will have to both prove its product works on an industrial scale and convince an entrenched industry of the need for change. “The cement industry is not well known for innovation," concedes Vlasopoulos. Novacem will start by pitching its cement for use in simple masonry blocks, and at the same time, will work on further improving the properties of its cement at Imperial.

Meanwhile, the company has large industrial partners such as Laing O’Rourke and Rio Tinto Minerals testing its product. Going forward, it will look at licensing or selling its technology – or it could raise the funds to build its own cement plant. But with a potential cost of between £3 million and £6 million this is the least likely option, says Vlasopoulos.

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