Maintenance Monday – How Portland Cement is Made

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Portland cement is the basic ingredient of concrete. Concrete is formed when portland cement creates a paste with water that binds with sand and rock to harden.

Cement is manufactured through a closely controlled chemical combination of calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron and other ingredients. Common materials used to manufacture cement include limestone, shells, and chalk or marl combined with shale, clay, slate, blast furnace slag, silica sand, and iron ore. These ingredients, when heated at high temperatures form a rock-like substance that is ground into the fine powder that we commonly think of as cement.

The most common way to manufacture portland cement is through a dry method. The first step is to quarry the principal raw materials, mainly limestone, clay, and other materials. After quarrying the rock is crushed. This involves several stages. The first crushing reduces the rock to a maximum size of about 6 inches. The rock then goes to secondary crushers or hammer mills for reduction to about 3 inches or smaller.

The crushed rock is combined with other ingredients such as iron ore or fly ash and ground, mixed, and fed to a cement kiln. The cement kiln heats all the ingredients to about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit in huge cylindrical steel rotary kilns lined with special firebrick. Kilns are frequently as much as 12 feet in diameter—large enough to accommodate an automobile and longer in many instances than the height of a 40-story building. The large kilns are mounted with the axis inclined slightly from the horizontal.

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The finely ground raw material or the slurry is fed into the higher end. At the lower end is a roaring blast of flame, produced by precisely controlled burning of powdered coal, oil, alternative fuels, or gas under forced draft.

As the material moves through the kiln, certain elements are driven off in the form of gases. The remaining elements unite to form a new substance called clinker. Clinker comes out of the kiln as grey balls, about the size of marbles.

Clinker is discharged red-hot from the lower end of the kiln and generally is brought down to handling temperature in various types of coolers. The heated air from the coolers is returned to the kilns, a process that saves fuel and increases burning efficiency.

After the clinker is cooled, cement plants grind it and mix it with small amounts of gypsum and limestone. Cement is so fine that 1 pound of cement contains 150 billion grains.  The cement is now ready for transport to ready-mix concrete companies to be used in a variety of construction projects.

Although the dry process is the most modern and popular way to manufacture cement, some kilns in the United States use a wet process. The two processes are essentially alike except in the wet process, the raw materials are ground with water before being fed into the kiln.