A Multitude of Uses for Industrial Sand
Human civilizations are literally built on sand.
Since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, sand has been used for construction. In the 15th century, an Italian artisan figured out how to turn sand into truly transparent glass. This discovery resulted in microscopes, telescopes, and other technologies that helped drive the scientific revolution. It also made windows affordable for the commoner.
In terms of aggregate minerals, sand is one of the most versatile. Sand of various kinds is an essential ingredient in detergents, cosmetics, toothpaste, solar panels, silicon chips, and especially buildings. In fact, every concrete structure is basically tons of sand and gravel glued together with cement. (See related article, “Aggregate Minerals…Everywhere, But Often Overlooked.”)
Where Does It Come From?
Sand can be created when glaciers grind up stones, when oceans degrade seashells, and when volcanic lava cools and shatters upon contact with air. But nearly 70% of all the planet’s sand is formed by weathering quartz. Here’s how:
- Time and the elements erode the rock, both above and below the ground. Grains are ground off in the process.
- The earth’s rivers then carry countless tons of sand far and wide.
- These tons accumulate in riverbeds, on river banks, and at the places where rivers meet the sea.
Quartz is the most common silica crystal on the planet. It’s also the second most common mineral on the earth’s surface. (The first is feldspar.)
Quartz is found in almost every type of rock: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary. Deposits are abundant, and quartz is present in nearly all mining operations. But quartz deposits that are high in purity (and therefore, commercially viable) occur less frequently. Which is why the extracted ore undergoes considerable processing to increase the silica content by reducing impurities.
The result is “industrial sand,” a term normally applied to high-purity silica sand.
How Is It Used?
Apart from water and air, humble sand is the natural resource most consumed by human beings.
Amazing, isn’t it?
People use more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. Here are just a few of the many applications for industrial sand:
Industrial sand is essential to foundries. That’s because metal parts, ranging from engine blocks to sink faucets, are cast in sand and clay molds to produce their external shape.
Silica sand is the primary component of all types of specialty and standard glasses. The chemical purity of the silica is the primary determinant of glass’s color, quality and strength.
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Silicon-based chemicals are the foundation of everything from food processing to soap and dye production. Industrial sand is the primary component in chemicals used to make household cleaners and fiber optics. It’s also used to remove impurities from cooking oil and beverages.
This is a big one. Industrial sand is the primary structural component in a wide variety of building and construction products. Such as flooring compounds, mortars, cements, stucco, roofing shingles, skid-resistant surfaces and asphalt.
Micron-sized industrial sands improve the appearance and durability of paint and coatings. Silica fillers improve tint retention and durability. They also make paint resistant to abrasion and corrosion.
Ground silica is an essential component of the glaze and body formulations of all types of ceramic products. These include tableware, bathroom fixtures, and floor and wall tile.
Industrial sand is used in the filtration of drinking water, the processing of wastewater and the production of water from wells.
Oil and Gas Recovery
Industrial sand is pumped down holes in deep well applications to prop open rock fissures and increase the flow rate of natural gas or oil.
With the increasing demand for industrial sand, the amount of sand being mined is increasing exponentially. And it’s spawned a worldwide boom in illegal sand mining, particularly in places like Indonesia and India. As land quarries and riverbeds in the developing world become tapped out, sand miners are turning to the seas.
That’s because not all sand is created equal. Desert sand (like the millions of tons that can be found in the Sahara) is very round and very fine. It doesn’t bind well, and therefore can’t be used in many applications (most notably, construction).
Beach sand, on the other hand, has coarse, imperfect edges that bind easily. It’s the perfect building material.
As a result, “sand wars” are being waged over this precious commodity. Take a look at this trailer for an award-winning documentary about the illegal mining of sand in the developing world:
In response to this situation, governments of industrialized nations (most notably, European countries) are seeking alternatives to sand mining. They’re also encouraging companies to recycle construction materials.
For instance, 28% of all British building materials were recycled in 2014. And plans by the European Union to recycle 75% of all glass by 2025 are aimed at lowering the demand for industrial sand.
Only time will tell if measures like these will impact the planet’s increasing demand for this versatile nature resource.