The Future Of Sand

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Heard On The Morning Show
sand along water
Toussaint Ruggeri (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Concrete buildings, paved roads, windows, computer screen all share a key ingredient – sand. We talk to the author of a new book about the material, find out the scope of how much we depend on it and consider what’s ahead for this natural resource.

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  • Sand Is Everywhere, Yet We May Be Running Out Of It

    What do concrete buildings, windows and your smartphone have in common? Sand — the stuff our modern cities are made out of, says Vince Beiser, author of “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization.”

    “The thing that basically every apartment block, office building and shopping mall in the world is made out of, concrete, is nothing but sand and gravel glued together with cement,” he said.

    We use more sand than any other natural resource on earth, except for water and air, Beiser said. At close to 50 billion tons every year worldwide, it’s enough to cover the entire state of California.

    But, we’re starting to run out of it, he said.

    “Even though there’s a lot of it — it’s actually the most abundant thing in the world — but at the end of the day the number is finite,” Beiser said. “We’re really starting to, not so much use up all the sand that there is on the planet, but we are starting to really run out of the sand that we can get at.”

    Which means we have to go further and further to get at the sand we need, causing more damage to the environment in the process, he said.

    A growing population and economic development are driving the sand crisis, Beiser said. To put it into perspective, an average house takes about 400 tons of sand to build, hospitals and schools are in the thousands.

    Sand is everywhere — nearly every country mines sand to feed the growth of their cities — but the type of sand matters. While it may intuitively seem like countries surrounded by desert are better positioned, that’s not the case, he said.

    “The first thing everybody always says is, ‘What about deserts? There’s plenty of desert sand,’” Beiser said. “And in fact there is plenty of desert sand, but desert sand is pretty much useless for us human beings.”

    The grains of desert sand are shaped differently than the sand you find on riverbeds, beaches and lake bottoms because they have been eroded by wind, rather than water, he said. Desert sand is smoother and rounder, and won’t lock together in the way that’s necessary to make concrete.

    “It’s like the difference between trying to build something out of a pile of little marbles as opposed to … a pile of little bricks, so you need that sand that’s kind of got some sharp corners and angularity as they call it in the trade,” Beiser said.

    In Wisconsin, particularly western Wisconsin, frac sand is mined to feed the demand for oil. Fracking — shooting a highly pressurized mix of water, chemicals and sand down into a rock formation to shatter it and allow oil and gas to flow through — needs sand that is round and really strong.

    “That’s very unusual to find that kind of sand and indeed there’s a lot of that there in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota,” he said. “It’s shaped that way basically just kind of by geological accident … (it’s) very pure quartz which makes it extremely hard and it’s also really old.”

    Growth in the oil industry has brought with it an increased demand in sand. Ten years ago, there was maybe a handful of sand mines in Wisconsin, today there’s more than 100, Beiser said.

    The industry has brought jobs and money to the area, but also environmental concerns, he said.

    “First of all there’s concern about water … once you pull the sand out of the earth you have to wash it to get off all the dust and stuff and that requires lots and lots of water, as much as 2 million gallons a day gets used in some of these mines,” he said.

    Then there’s concerns about air quality.

    “When you’re processing all that sand using heavy equipment … it kicks up a lot of dust of course and that includes … tiny particulates of silica, of sand basically, but really microscopic amounts of it and that silica can cause silicosis which is a really serious lung disease,” Beiser said.

    Yet that‘s a controversial issue. The sand mining industry and some researchers say they take enough safety precautions and there’s no evidence silica in the air reaches dangerous levels near the mines, he said.

    “Other researchers from the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere have found that in fact the opposite is true,” Beiser said. “It’s a really tough issue to really know who’s right because silicosis can take 10 to 15 years to develop. So for a lot of these problems … it’s going to take 10 or 20 years before we actually know what the real impact has been.”

Episode Credits

  • John Munson Host
  • Breann Schossow Producer
  • Michael Dieringer Technical Director
  • Vince Beiser Guest