The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Sherif Elsayed-Ali, co-founder and CEO of Carbon Re, a climate tech company based in London developing cutting-edge AI models for decarbonization. Elsayed-Ali spoke about how the company is focusing on decarbonizing cement production and how the company’s platform differs from existing solutions.
Hodan Omaar: What is Carbon Re all about?
Sherif Elsayed-Ali: Our main focus at Carbon Re is to decarbonize the production of materials, and we are starting with one of the hardest to abate sectors: cement. Cement is one of the most used materials in construction around the world today, in part because it has the right properties for strength and versatility, and in part because it is easy to source—the primary raw material used in making cement, limestone, is the most abundant sedimentary rock. The problem is, there isn’t a substitute for cement at the scale needed today, especially as parts of the world develop, and producing this material contributes significantly to carbon emissions. Cement is responsible for about 8 percent of global carbon emissions.
What we can do however, is find alternative ways to produce cement that drastically cuts carbon emissions. That’s the underlying thesis of Carbon Re. We are developing machine learning models and AI systems that solve the fundamental challenges underlying material production, in order to reduce emissions.
Omaar: How do your AI-based solutions actually work to optimize materials production?
Elsayed-Ali: Our first application, Delta-Zero Cement, helps cement operators optimize the fuel combustion processes they use, which is where they heat up limestone to make cement. This part of the process accounts for half the emissions associated with cement production. The goal is to enable operators to use the least amount of fuel to produce the quantity of product they need at the quality level they require. Our solution simulates the chemical and physical processes in a given manufacturing plant, analyzes live data on things like the rate at which materials are being fed into machines, sensor data, and control parameters, and then gives specific control adjustments on what to change in order to lower emissions and fuel costs.
Omaar: How does your solution differ from existing solutions?
Elsayed-Ali: Existing solutions typically rely on computer programs called expert systems that rely on hard-coded rules and logic to generate recommendations. Expert systems are somewhat analogous to cruise control systems in cars; they analyze specific parameters, such as burning zone temperature, and if the levels fall above or below a certain level, these systems will make adjustments to the process according to the rules they have been hard-coded with. While this approach has benefits, it is not very dynamic and doesn’t do well with unusual situations.
Our solution relies on advanced AI techniques that can efficiently handle complex relationships and provide dynamic pathways for optimizing processes. It’s more like Google Maps than cruise control, it is trying to get a process from point A to point B in the most efficient way.
Omaar: How much impact does using Delta Zero Cement have for companies?
Elsayed-Ali: The major benefits are twofold. First, plants can save millions of dollars because they can produce more efficiently; using our platforms can deliver $3 million in fuel cost savings for each plant. Second, our solution enables fast reductions in fuel emissions in cement production—up to 20 percent per plant in some cases.
Omaar: Why aren’t there more AI for climate solutions focused on the types of problem you’re solving given the large reductions in carbon emissions it promises?
Elsayed-Ali: It’s a genuinely difficult problem to try to address. The interactions between different inputs and variables in the processes we are trying to simulate are incredibly complex, we are talking about dozens of variables that can all affect the efficiency at which a plant is using fuel. To model all of this and then figure out how to manage the different variables is a complex challenge.
Fortunately, cement production is pretty much the same around the world. Whether you are in Egypt or Ghana or the United States, the way one produces cement is pretty standardized, and as such scalable solutions are possible.