Peak Sand

Preface.  Sand Primer:

  • Without sand, there would be no concrete, ceramics, computer chips, glass, plastics, abrasives, paint and so on
  • We can’t use desert sand because it’s too round, polished by the wind, and doesn’t stick together. You need rough edges, so desert sand is worthless
  • Good sand  is getting so rare there’s an enormous amount of illegal mining in over 70 countries.  In India the Sand Mafia is one of the most powerful, will kill for sand. It’s easy to steal sand and sell there.
  • This has led to between 75%-90% of beaches in the world receding and a huge amount of environmental damage.
  • By 2100 all beaches will be gone
  • Australia is selling sand to nations that don’t have any more (like the United Arab Emirates, who used all of their ocean sand to make artificial islands)
  • Sand is a big business, sales are $70 Billion a year
  • concrete is 40% sand

How Much Sand is needed?

  • 200 tons  Average house
  • 3,000 tons  Hospital or other large building
  • 30,000 tons per kilometer of highway
  • 12,000,000 tons  Nuclear Power Plant (that’s equal to nearly 250 miles of highway)

Half of all sand is trapped behind the 845,000 dams in the world.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Fountain, H., et al 2019. Melting Greenland Is Awash in Sand. New York Times.

Glaciers grind rocks into silt, sand and gravel.  Greenland hopes that there’s enough sand for them to become a sand exporter, if the environmental damage isn’t too high.

That won’t be easy.  Nearly all sand is mined within 50 miles of its destination because it costs too much to move it more than that.  So Greenland would have to find a way to make moving sand profitable.

A way to find the sand is required as well, since much of what the glacier produces is a fine silt that isn’t suitable for concrete.

Then if sand is found, an energy intensive process begins. A pipe is extended to the sea floor and sucks up water and sand.  Huge amounts of sand would need to be extracted into large bulk carriers, and new ports,and loading facilities built.  The distance to the nearest large cities is considerable longer than 50 miles. Boston is 2250 miles and London 1900 miles away.

Peak Sand in the news:

Gillis, J.R. November 4, 2014. Why Sand Is Disappearing. New York Times.

Extract, rearranged, sometimes paraphrased or reworded:

Today 75 to 90 percent of the world’s natural sand beaches are disappearing, due partly to massive legal and illegal mining, rising sea levels, increasing numbers of severe storms, and massive erosion from human development along coastlines. Many low-lying barrier islands are already submerged.

The sand and gravel business is now growing faster than the economy as a whole. In the United States, the market for mined sand has become a billion-dollar annual business, growing at 10% a year since 2008. Interior mining operations use huge machines working in open pits to dig down under the earth’s surface to get sand left behind by ancient glaciers. But as demand has risen — and the damming of rivers has held back the flow of sand from mountainous interiors — natural sources of sand have been shrinking.

One might think that desert sand would be a ready substitute, but its grains are finer and smoother; they don’t adhere to rougher sand grains, and tend to blow away. As a result, the desert state of Dubai brings sand for its beaches all the way from Australia.

And now there is a global beach-quality sand shortage, caused by the industries that have come to rely on it. Sand is vital to the manufacturing of abrasives, glass, plastics, microchips and even toothpaste, and, most recently, to the process of hydraulic fracturing. The quality of silicate sand found in the northern Midwest has produced what is being called a “sand rush” there, more than doubling regional sand pit mining since 2009.

But the greatest industrial consumer of all is the concrete industry. Sand from Port Washington on Long Island — 140 million cubic yards of it — built the tunnels and sidewalks of Manhattan from the 1880s onward. Concrete still takes 80 percent of all that mining can deliver. Apart from water and air, sand is the natural element most in demand around the world, a situation that puts the preservation of beaches and their flora and fauna in great danger. Today, a branch of Cemex, one of the world’s largest cement suppliers, is still busy on the shores of Monterey Bay in California, where its operations endanger several protected species.

The huge sand mining operations emerging worldwide, many of them illegal, are happening out of sight and out of mind, as far as the developed world is concerned. But in India, where the government has stepped in to limit sand mining along its shores, illegal mining operations by what is now referred to as the “sand mafia” defy these regulations. In Sierra Leone, poor villagers are encouraged to sell off their sand to illegal operations, ruining their own shores for fishing. Some Indonesian sand islands have been devastated by sand mining.
To those of us who visit beaches only in summer, they seem as permanent a part of our natural heritage as the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes. But shore dwellers know differently. Beaches are the most transitory of landscapes, and sand beaches the most vulnerable of all.
Yet the extent of this global crisis is obscured because so-called beach nourishment projects attempt to hold sand in place and repair the damage by the time summer people return, creating the illusion of an eternal shore.

Before next summer, endless lines of dump trucks will have filled in bare spots and restored dunes. Virginia Beach alone has been restored more than 50 times. In recent decades, East Coast barrier islands have used 23 million loads of sand, much of it mined inland and the rest dredged from coastal waters — a practice that disturbs the sea bottom, creating turbidity that kills coral beds and damages spawning grounds, which hurts inshore fisheries.

It is time for us to understand where sand comes from and where it is going. Sand was once locked up in mountains and it took eons of erosion before it was released into rivers and made its way to the sea. As Rachel Carson wrote in 1958, “in every curving beach, in every grain of sand, there is a story of the earth.” Now those grains are sequestered yet again — often in the very concrete sea walls that contribute to beach erosion.

We need to stop taking sand for granted and think of it as an endangered natural resource. Glass and concrete can be recycled back into sand, but there will never be enough to meet the demand of every resort. So we need better conservation plans for shore and coastal areas. Beach replenishment — the mining and trucking and dredging of sand to meet tourist expectations — must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with environmental considerations taking top priority. Only this will ensure that the story of the earth will still have subsequent chapters told in grains of sand.

Videos about Sand:


Coastal Care on Sand Mining:

Wiki on Sand mining:

Sand Mining Facts:

Stop illegal sand mining in India


Below is a table from CRYSTALLINE SILICA PRIMER,  Industrial Minerals, U.S. Department of the Interior about how sand is used (see Table 2 for even more uses):

Table 1. Silica In Commodities And End-Product Applications

Commodity/form of silica/major commercial applications

  • Antimony / Quartz / Flame retardants, batteries, ceramics, glass, alloys
  • Bauxite / Quartz / Aluminum production, refractories, abrasives
  • Beryllium / Quartz / Electronic applications
  • Cadmium / Quartz, jasper, opal, etc. / Batteries, coatings and platings, pigments, plastics, alloys
  • Cement / None / Concrete (quartz in concrete mix)
  • Clay / Quartz, cristobalite / Paper, ceramics, paint, refractories
  • Copper / Quartz /Electrical conduction, plumbing, machinery
  • Crushed stone / Quartz /Construction
  • Diatomite / Quartz, amorphous silica /Filtration aids
  • Dimension stone / Quartz /Building facings
  • Feldspar / Quartz / Glass, ceramics, filler material
  • Fluorspar / Quartz /Acids, steel making flux, glass, enamel, weld rod coatings
  • Garnet / Quartz / Abrasives, filtration, gem stone
  • Germanium / Quartz, jasper, etc. / Infrared optics, fiber optics, semiconductors
  • Gold / Quartz, chert /Jewelry, dental, industrial, monetary
  • Gypsum / Quartz /Gypsum board (prefabricated building product), industrial and building plaster
  • Industrial sand / Quartz / Glass, foundry sand
  • Iron ore / Chert, quartz / Iron and steel industry
  • Iron oxide pigment / Chert, quartz, amorphous silica / Construction materials, paint, coatings
  • Lithium / Quartz /Ceramics, glass, aluminum product
  • Magnesite / Quartz / Refractories
  • Mercury / Quartz / Chlorine and caustic soda manufacture, batteries
  • Mica / Quartz / Joint cement, paint, roofing
  • Perlite / Quartz etc / Building construction products
  • Phosphate rock / Quartz / Fertilizers
  • Pumice / Volcanic glass, Quartz / Concrete aggregate, building block
  • Pyrophyllite / Quartz / Ceramics, refractories
  • Sand and gravel / Quartz / Construction
  • Selenium / Quartz / Photocopiers, glass manufacturing, pigments
  • Silicon / Quartz / Silicon and ferrosilicon for ferrous foundry and steel
  • industry; computers; photoelectric cells
  • Silver / Quartz, chert / Photographic material, electrical and electronic products
  • Talc / Quartz / Ceramics, paint, plastics, paper
  • Tellerium / Quartz / Steel and copper alloys, rubber compounding, electronics
  • Thallium / Quartz, etc / Electronics, superconductors, glass alloy
  • Titanium / Quartz / Pigments for paint, paper, plastics, metal for aircraft,
  • chemical processing equipment
  • Tungsten / Quartz / Cemented carbides for metal machining and wear-resistant components
  • Vanadium / Quartz, amorphous silica / Alloying element in iron, steel, and titanium
  • Zinc / Quartz, etc / Galvanizing, zinc-based alloys, chemicals, agriculture
  • Zircon / Quartz / Ceramics, refractories, zirconia production

In Heavy Industry

Foundry molds and cores for the production of metal castings are made from quartz sand. The manufacture of high-temperature silica brick for use in the linings of glass- and steel-melting furnaces represents another common use of crystalline silica in industry. The oil and gas industry uses crystalline silica to break up rock in wells. The operator pumps a water-sand mixture, under pressure, into the rock formations to fracture them so that oil and gas may be easily brought to the surface. More than 1 million tons of quartz sand were used annually for this purpose during the 1970’s and early 1980’s when oil-well drilling was at its peak. Quartz sand is also used for filtering sediment and bacteria from water supplies and in sewage treat ment. Although this use of crystalline silica has increased in recent years, it still represents a small proportion of the total use.

High-Tech Applications

Historically, crystalline silica, as quartz, has been a material of strategic importance. During World War II, communications components in telephones and mobile military radios were made from quartz. With today’s emphasis on military command, control, and communications surveillance and with modern advances in sophisticated electronic systems, quartz-crystal devices are in even greater demand. In the field of optics, quartz meets many needs. It has certain optical properties that permit its use in polarized laser beams. The field of laser optics uses quartz as windows, prisms, optical filters, and timing devices. Smaller portions of high-quality quartz crystals are used for prisms and lenses in optical instruments. Scientists are experimenting with quartz bars to focus sunlight in solar-power applications. Quartz crystals possess a unique property called piezoelectricity. A piezoelectric crystal converts mechanical pressure into electricity and vice versa. When a quartz crystal is cut at an exact angle to its axis, pressure on it generates a minute electrical charge, and likewise, an electrical charge applied to quartz causes it to vibrate more than 30,000 times per second in some applications. Piezoelectric quartz crystals are used to make electronic oscillators, which provide accurate frequency control for radio transmitters and radio-frequency telephone circuits. Incoming signals of interfering frequencies can be filtered out by piezoelectric crystals. Piezoelectric crystals are also used for quartz watches and other time-keeping devices

USGS 2011 Minerals Yearbook U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey SAND AND GRAVEL, CONSTRUCTION

(It’s 2014 but 2011 is the most recent data available, only a third of those queried responded, stats for sand vs gravel are not broken out, no information about ecological damage or theft, a pretty inept, incomplete report overall, but for what it’s worth): A total of 810 million metric tons (Mt) of construction sand and gravel was produced in the United States in 2011. This was a slight increase of 5 Mt from the revised production of 2010, the first increase in annual production since 2006, following 4 consecutive years of decreases. The slight improvement came in response to increased demand from certain State economies experiencing the boom in natural gas and oil production and from some construction segments.

As sand and gravel became less available owing to resource constraint or economic conditions in some locales, builders began to crush bedrock to produce a manufactured sand and gravel often referred to as crushed stone

Of the 810 Mt of construction sand and gravel produced in 2011, 60% was reported or estimated without a breakdown by end use (tables 4–5). Of the remaining 327 Mt, 44% was used as concrete aggregate; 25% was used for road base and coverings and road stabilization; 13%, for asphaltic concrete aggregate and other bituminous mixtures; 12%, for construction fill; about 1% each, for concrete products, plaster and gunite sands, and snow and ice control; and the remainder was used for golf course maintenance, filtration, railroad ballast, road stabilization, roofing granules, and many other miscellaneous uses.

The high cost of transportation limit foreign trade to mostly local transactions across international boundaries. U.S. imports and exports were equivalent to less than 1% of domestic consumption.

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