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Sand has played a disproportionately great role in driving humanity forward, and that will almost certainly continue throughout the next century.

Stuff of Progress, Pt. 13: Sand

By Tony Morley @tonymmorley

You almost certainly woke up this morning in a structure with artificial bedrock made from it. It is the abrasive compound in your toothpaste, in the porcelain basin, the tile grout, and the silicone of your bathroom. It is in the glass display of your mobile phone and in the road on which you drove to work. It is in the chip that powered your computer and in the optical fiber that transmitted the data. All of that and much more was made possible through the use of sand.

The tiny grains of silicon dioxide that we commonly call quartz sand is used in tens of thousands of critical applications to advance civilization's flourishing. Humans have been using sand in the manufacturing of glass, the casting of metals, and as a building material for thousands of years; however, at no other point in history has sand been a more integral part of human civilization than during the modern age.

Sand, combined with reinforcing steel, provides the literal bedrock of much of the modern world, and we use it in truly prodigious volumes. Sand makes up roughly 75 percent of the mass of concrete, the material that has made the modern city possible. In 2018, the global construction industry alone was consuming $130 billion worth of sand annually to meet the architectural demands of a growing and improving civilization. When we add sand consumption for all applications, glass manufacturing, construction, technology, metallurgy, and thousands of other applications, annual global sand usage has been estimated at 50 billion tons. That amounts to roughly forty-five trillion kilograms or 5,814 kilograms of sand used per-capita annually.

The use of sand in the manufacture of concrete is helping to drive the largest demographic shift in human history. Since the 1950s, hundreds of millions of villagers have left behind their homes and farms and moved into urban environments built of concrete in search of better opportunities and living standards. Urbanization has been a powerful force driving down global poverty, increasing economic opportunity, and reducing pressure on the natural environment. This accelerating trend toward further urbanization has been built on the consumption of sand.

If you drove your vehicle on an asphalt road today, you drove atop a medium composed of more than 90 percent sand and gravel. Across the United States, some 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) of road built almost entirely of sand transport people and goods, adding tremendously to national and global GDP.

Sand, or accurately silicon dioxide, slowly crystallizes deep underground and is uplifted during mountain building processes where it is weathered away and carried to lower elevations by glaciers, rivers and creeks, and the wind. Eventually, most sand makes its way into rivers, lakes, and, most especially, the ocean. Roughly 70 percent of all the sand grains on earth are quartz, the type of sand which has the greatest utility to civilization.

Marine sand has rough edges that enable it to bind securely in concrete mixtures. This is why countries in the Middle East, awash in sand from seemingly endless deserts, often import marine sand from elsewhere for construction. Grains of desert sand, having been blown around for thousands of years, are too smooth to be used in the production of concrete. The geological processes which produce sand are non-renewable on a human timescale. Put differently, sand is being consumed at a faster rate than it can be replenished.

Some see the discrepancy between the skyrocketing demand for sand and the non-renewable nature of supply as potentially problematic. The harvesting of sand from the natural environment is certainly not without cost. It is a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons” where individuals, governments, or corporations can rapidly outstrip a common resource if incorrectly managed. The 2013 documentary Sand Wars paints a picture of an oncoming sand apocalypse – one where humanity will strip bare every beach in the quest to build a ceaseless sprawling urban landscape. There are, however, solutions for artificial sand production that can be utilized by the market to protect vulnerable or ecosystem-critical sources of natural sand. And there are still marketable but untapped sand reserves.

What is needed is a careful balance between protecting ecologically and environmentally strategic natural sand reserves while allowing civilization to continue building the cities that uplift the poor and the glass and other sand derived products that enrich the lives of billions.

Supplies of high quality and high utility sand are indeed becoming more constrained. However, much like the predictions of mass oil shortages ending our way of life as we know it, panic about a future without sand is likely unfounded. The upside to humanity's ignorance about sand's value and utility is that many brilliant and entrepreneurial minds have scarcely considered the problem. If history tells us anything about the nature of constrained resources, it is that humans are remarkable at pivoting from one resource to another, or finding or making more of that resource as scarcity lifts the cost of the resources higher.

The use of sand has played a disproportionately great role in driving humanity forward, and that will almost certainly continue throughout the next century.

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