banah UK….A Concrete Study in R&D
banah UK is a company where a winning formula of patent rich innovation and high tech solutions followed by investment in plant and QC/ testing and understanding has enabled the company to begin production and realise their first sales, all in a relatively tight R&D life cycle.
Right next to banah’s name on its signage is the strap line ‘Cement Reimagined’ and it’s a little phrase that sums up the company rather well. Banah, its founder John Blackstock, his two sons and the rest of the small team at its base near Coleraine are doing something that no other company in the world is doing right now. They’re pioneering and producing a revolutionary new type of cement.
And it’s hard to underestimate the role that cement plays worldwide. Did you realise that concrete is the second most used commodity in the world…. after water? That equates to half a tonne for every man, woman and child on the planet. But those statistics relate to the mass market for cement. The team’s new product, banahCEM, is a unique new low-carbon cement based on a geopolymer binder system.
It comes in two components – a powder and liquid – and it has a number of important advantages over traditional Portland cement. It’s much more environmentally friendly, it’s resistant to much higher temperatures and it’s also resistant to many more harmful chemicals. It’s not hard, then, to see how Banah’s new cement might find applications in worldwide markets…. despite the fact that, for now at least, it is considerably more expensive than traditional cement.
Back in 2013, banah UK received further investment from Tobermore Concrete Products, an individual investor and Invest NI backing for its R&D base and manufacturing plant at Macosquin, where cement production swung into operation for the first time in April of this year (2016). But the company’s story goes back a lot further than that.
A quantity surveyor by profession, Antrim man John Blackstock has always had innovation and invention in his blood. He worked in England for a number of years, returning home to work on new product lines with the Larne-based Kilwaughter Chemicals, retiring from there at the age of 54 several years ago.
Except, of course, he didn’t retire. “I had been working with cement for quite a while. It’s a great product but it has its limitations and I was convinced that the future lay in geopolymers,” he says. “One of the big drawbacks of traditional cement is that it is high in CO2. In short, it’s really not good for the planet. That was my starting point, but a lot of reading, a lot of thinking and a lot of research has gone into it since then.”
John Blackstock linked up at the early stages with a scientist with an established interest in cement technology. McIntosh started working for the fledgling company in a Portakabin close to Blackstock’s Antrim home….and banahCEM was born. The science behind the concept is as complex as anyone would want it to be. In essence, the production of Portland cement involves the burning of limestone and sources of silica (clay) at very high temperatures.
“But it is this very process that produces high levels of CO2,” says John Blackstock. “We started by looking at nature for our lessons. Limestone doesn’t react well to fire while rocks like basalt and granite are the opposite. Our research took us deeper into the chemistry of rocks and minerals.” The in-depth research of Blackstock and McIntosh brought the pair into contact with Professor Joseph Davidovits, a French materials scientist credited with the invention of the term geopolymer chemistry.
Davidovits had a deep interest in what the Banah team was trying to achieve and, in turn, his expertise and experience were very useful to the Northern Ireland company. “He challenged us at every step, he introduced us to work on geopolymers going on at university level, and he encouraged us to push boundaries.
Banah developed its business case, and its processes, from that intensive blue sky R&D. John Blackstock’s two sons, Kenny & Andrew hold positions within the growing team and the board is chaired by David Henderson, Chief Executive of local firm Tobermore Concrete Products, a high profile believer (and investor) in Banah and its ideas for the future of cement.
Currently a number of academics work closely with the Banah team. These include Professor John Provis, Professor of Cement Materials Science & Engineering at the University of Sheffield, alongside Professor Marios Soutsos and Dr Sreejith Nanukuttan of the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering, Queens University Belfast. The company has collaborated with both QUB and Sheffield to facilitate a KTP research associate.
“The science and the manufacturing process is one thing,” says John Blackstock. “But we do have our challenges. Because of the global scale of the industry, cement is cheap. Something like four billion tonnes of it are produced each year. However, it is all the same kind of cement.”
On a global level, cement production plants tend to be huge facilities. Cement giants Lafarge recently spent a cool £500 million to build a new plant in Nigeria. Banah has effectively built a 10th scale, bespoke, state of the art cement production facility at Macosquin, capable of producing 150,000 tonnes per year.
It may be smaller than the industry norm, but this is still a substantial manufacturing plant by any local measure. It represents a large-scale upfront investment by the Banah shareholders, and its running costs are not to be sniffed at. That’s despite the fact that it heat treats its product at less than half the temperature used in the production of Portland cement.
John Blackstock smiles when he recounts how he was told that the plant’s natural gas usage was on a similar scale to that of the whole nearby town of Portstewart. “We designed the whole plant effectively from scratch and we’ve used the very best available technology,” says Blackstock, who bought the industrial site at Macosquin back in 2013.
Banah’s sales effort will be international but is currently focused on the GB marketplace, where the company already has a small sales team in place. “The feedback from the customers we’ve spoken to so far has been really positive. A lot of people in the business are watching what we’re doing here very closely indeed.
“This is not a traditional cement plant. We’ve designed the plant and our processes to be flexible. It can run efficiently for a short period of time, can heat and cool quickly and accommodate subtle chemistry changes. “So we’ve done the blue sky thinking and a huge amount of customerfocused R&D has taken place, and we will continue to listen to what our potential customers are saying. It’s important that we remain quick on our feet.”