3 Aug 2019

We're Almost Out of Sand

By Adrienne Montgomerie

Windows, concrete, silicone chips, and even water filtration systems have one thing in common, and it’s getting harder and harder to find: it’s sand.

Can you believe that? The stuff between your toes at the beach, in your bathing suit, in your bag… the stuff that is so hard to get rid of, that sticks everywhere. That sand is running out. It’s getting so hard to find that people are even stealing it, turning the sand business into a crime: a “sand mafia” that will kill to protect their sand supply.
“But what about the desert?” you ask. Well, there are two reasons desert sand can’t be used to make modern products:
  1. Desert sand is too round and smooth. River sand, worn down by water has the best shape for making all those products.
  2. Deserts are too far from factories. Sand is very heavy; just one cubic meter weighs a ton. That’s as much as small car. And that means the only way it’s affordable to make things from sand is if it comes from nearby — less than 100 km away. 
There is still sand to be mined, but the easy-to-get sand is almost gone. What does this mean for the future? “Sand is actually the most important solid substance on Earth,” says Vince Beiser author of The World in a Grain. “It’s the literal foundation of modern civilization.” Modern life relies very heavily on glass, concrete, and electronics. Reinforced concrete is what made high rise buildings possible. Bridges and huge dams too. Glass is needed for all our smartphones as well as for our solar panels.

We now use more sand each year than we did in the past 100 years, total. “We’re adding the equivalent of eight New York Cities to the world every single year,” Beiser said in an episode of 99% Invisible.

As we search for new sources of sand, we have to look in less easy places, and that means big environmental impacts. Because water’s force shapes the best sand, finding new sand means doing a lot of damage to rivers, lakes, and marshes.

Are there alternatives? Could we use bamboo or recycled materials to make concrete instead? Maybe you will be the materials scientist who finds out.

Learn more:
“The World is Running Out of Sand,” New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/the-world-is-running-out-of-sand

Photo of cell phone on sidewalk by olle svensson used under CC BY-2.0 license.
Photo of sand by Ian Strain used under CC BY-NC-ND-2.0 license.

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