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Alumni Voices: Decarbonizing Construction with a King's Physics degree - Gregory Bernstein

After graduating from King’s, Gregory Bernstein (Physics, 1994) has worked for Holcim, one of the world’s largest building material companies, for more than 30 years, taking on chemical engineering, project management, strategy, innovation and business development roles in the UK, Europe and the US. He is currently leading worldwide strategic partnerships development to accelerate sustainable construction.

A black and white image of a man with short hair smiling at the camera.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, where my high school’s favorite subjects were math and science. By the time I was applying to university, the USSR was disbanded. I applied to King’s. It met all my expectations: the energy of London, the views of the Thames, the Strand, where every nook of every building contained some fascinating piece of history. I was drawn to King’s Physics because of its roots going back to James Clerk Maxwell, the friendly professors and students who patiently and kindly helped improve my English, and the administration staff who found a way to translate my foreign studies into UK credits.

With the King’s Degree in Physics completed, I joined Holcim – one of the world's largest global corporations engaged in development, manufacturing, shipping and innovation of building materials. On the one hand, it was just a coincidence – I simply applied for a job that looked interesting in an industry I did not know much about. On the other hand, it proved to be a perfect fit for me. In the cement industry you mine some really basic materials – chalk, bauxite, sand, clay, then mix it all together, grind it finely as in a huge coffee grinder, then throw it all into a giant kiln, where you melt the mix to start a complex chemical and physical transformation.

Two steels machines covered in dials.

I enjoyed working in the modern laboratories, where we tested cement hardening in very high temperature and pressure applications many kilometers underground. 

For the first ten years I worked as a chemical engineer at factories all over the world, with industry standardization agencies and on our due-diligence teams validating new acquisitions. In the 1990s, cement manufacturing technology went through a revolution, which halved the amount of fuel necessary to the process of cement manufacturing. It was a strategic priority, which helped us to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Our company mission is to build better with less. To do that, we develop new products, logistics networks and technologies (to reduce transport, fuels, optimize supply chain).

Modern cement plants became unrecognizable from the early 1990s: clean, automated, we have even commissioned on-line chemistry analysis in real time of millions of tons of materials. I am especially proud that these plants use millions of tons less water than their predecessors and generate less CO2.

As my career progressed, I transitioned from on the ground decarbonisation work into leadership, strategy and business development. I worked with many teams as part of due diligence for mergers and acquisitions. Such projects involve experts from many discipline making their conclusions about a factory value, technology, emissions reduction potential and fitness for the future markets.

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In front of Amazon’s Seattle Head office built with Holcim’s low carbon cement with Francois Perrot, CEO of 14Trees - a joint venture scaling up 3D printing for construction between Holcim and British International Investment (BII), the UK's development finance institution and impact investor.

One of many especially important topics during my career was cleaning the environment. For example, in the recent years we partnered with Amazon to use low carbon solutions to build their new head offices and data centers in the US.

The sun sets behind an industrial site located amongst green trees.

Thanks to new technologies, modern cement plants use millions of tons less water than their predecessors. 

In more recent years, I had the privilege to participate in the United Nations Climate efforts on such priority subjects as decarbonization, water reduction and circular economy (e.g. reusing old materials or fuels).

A view from a conference seat for #Water Action.

In 2023 I shared some positive experiences of water reduction by Holcim at the UN global congress on water management in New York. It was amazing to work with so many experts and organization in this strategic area, which impacts the whole planet.

My current job is to create global partnerships to accelerate sustainable construction. It means finding ways to use renewable energy, materials, clean solutions at every step of the supply chain, during buildings engineering, design, operation and even demolition – so that nothing is wasted, and transport distances are reduced to the minimum.

Perhaps one piece of advice I can offer to current King’s students is to consider for your future career those industries which may sound ‘brick and mortar’… you may be surprised at how many modern technologies are being invented there, how many amazing professionals of every discipline work there, and how much impact they make.

Two white men in hard hats and blue high visibility jackets smile at the camera.

If you come to the city of Antwerp, have a look at their giant construction projects, which take their highways underground while creating beautiful parks, biking trails and new neighborhoods; with Alexander D'Hooghe, CEO of Permanent Modernity.

An infographic about ways in which building work is being decarbonised.

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