Written In Sand… The Next Global Shortage has Arrived!

Sand MiningAs the world becomes more globalized, international projects are getting bigger. As a result, the most unexpected shortages can suddenly appear. A few years ago, China went on a building spree, creating a global shortage of scaffolding and construction cranes. As cities compete with farms and recreation for water, shortages are inevitable. But now we face a shortage that could break the foundations of the global economy… sand.

Sand? Yes, that’s right… sand! Sand is a critical component of concrete. And concrete, along with steel, is the literal foundation of civilization. Over the last 20 years, the world was on a building spree. Skyscrapers are now a common sight around the world. Skyscrapers consume a huge amount of concrete. Add to that, concrete plazas, concrete sewers, tunnels, sidewalks, and bridges. Cities need concrete….

… and concrete needs sand! But beaches and deserts are filled with sand? Why can’t that be used for construction? Ironically, desert sand is too fine and too round. It makes an inferior grade of concrete. You might get away with it for a wall around a house, but not in a skyscraper.

Sea sand has its own problems. It may be made of tiny stones (good) or shells (not as good), but it’s all contaminated with salt which is very bad for concrete. There are ways of getting the salt out, but it’s expensive.

The best sand is either river sand or sand deposited under relatively primal forests (by extinct rivers). Mining that sand can be very destructive. And expensive, since the law often requires miners to return the land to its original state. America as just one remaining sand mine, which is set to close in 2020. The sand shortage is a major issue for construction, but it is going to get much worse! And here is why…

Middle East: Some of the world’s tallest buildings are in  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Super skyscrapers are very new to this part of the world. Therefore, there is very little data to know how safe these buildings will be. Especially if local managers cut corners on safety to meet building schedules. If there are problems, it won’t be in the early years, it will happen after the buildings have been around for awhile, and then have to withstand a major storm or an earthquake.

If the right sand is not available, construction will be halted. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, cost $1.76 billion and took 6 years to build. That’s $800,000 a day, but during the middle of the project costs probably peaked around $2 million a day. Not every building is the Burj, but it is easy to see how managers can fold under the pressure, and make bad decisions. Including the use of questionable sand. Similarly, if problems show up later… such as cracks in walls and foundations… will these problems be reported?

The United Arab Emirates has also built whole new islands off of their coast. These islands (starting with Palm island) are for the ultra rich. These islands consumed 94 million cubic meters of sand, scooping up virtually all of the sand within 6 nautical miles of Dubai’s coast. How did they use sea sand? Simple, they didn’t turn the sand into concrete, they just pushed piles of sand together to form islands. This was driven by aesthetics, not engineering.  That means constant maintenance for these man-made islands.

China: While Palm island is a modern miracle of construction, China is still the world’s biggest user of concrete, and will be for decades to come. In less than two decades, China has built over 500 new cities. While China has slowed down in building new cities, they will still keep the global demand for sand high.

Illegal Mining: India is on a similar building spree, driving up competition for local sand.  In fact, India has coined a new term, “Sand Mafia”, to describe all of the illegal sand mining around India and the neighboring nations.  Unfortunately, a lot of local warlords have learned that tearing up the countryside to steal sand it is a very quick way to make a lot of money.

Climate Change: “Storms of the Century” now happen several times a year. During a storm, sand is scoured from beaches and dunes and swept into the sea. Further inland, flooding destroys homes, and rebuilding requires sand. Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico have put further pressure on the global sand market. As the weather gets wilder, demand will continue to rise.

Fracking: The price of oil is rising! With oil is above $50 a barrel, closed wellheads are reopening, especially in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. In the Bakken, oil is Fracked, requiring Fracking fluid… mostly water and sand. More of America’s power, for at least the next two decades, will rely on Fracking, and sand.

Belt and Road Initiative: China is leading the world’s largest construction project, the Belt and Road Initiative (or BRI).  This project runs through 65 nations, with tens of thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of new railroad lines, and scores of seaports, with an estimated cost of $8 trillion dollars. The BRI will require more sand than anything in the history of the world.

Silk Road Economy: The BRI is staggeringly huge, but it is nothing compared to all of the projects that it will spin off. The BRI, also called the New Silk Road, will accelerate the globalization of developed and developing nations while kickstarting the development of the poorest nations on earth. The BRI will build new railroads and seaports, but these economic centers will, in turn, employ tens of millions of people. This means hundreds of new cities will be built, along with thousands of power plants and factories, and scores of millions of new homes. All of which require sand, steel, and concrete.

Alternatives: We’ve exhausted the world’s supply of sand. Yet, over the next decade, we will accelerate construction. Economic pressure will force the world to open up new sand mining sites. The demand will be so high that even banned practices, such as dredging rivers for sand, may return. But there is an alternative! if you cannot find sand, make it!

For years, it has been possible make artificial sand from crushed rocks, but the quality is often uneven. Artificial sand improved over time, but skyscrapers keep getting taller and specifications for sand more demanding. Construction sand needs to be of ever higher quality, which is increasingly difficult to find.

A new form of synthetic sand is made from glass and can be made to very high standards. But it is not yet clear how much glass/sand can be produced. Only a fraction of waste glass is collected and sent to recycling facilities, and only a third of the glass that is collected is actually recycled. Glass based sand may substitute for the natural kind, but we don’t yet know how much we can make or what it will cost.

We shouldn’t worry about the price too much. The cost of sand has gone through as many ups and downs as the price of oil. In 2016 the cost of a ton of sand was $15-$20 but rose to $40 in late 2017. That’s not even the peak price of $60 to $70 a ton in 2014, China was still building new cities and fracking was big. Once the BRI ramps up, construction managers will pay any price to get the sand they need.

The Future of Sand: The economic forces that are driving the need for sand will become much greater in the early 2020s. Yet, at that time America will close it’s last active sand mine, for environmental issues. There is no simple or cheap solution to the sand shortage. Crushed rock and glass based sand will help, but it probably won’t be enough.

If there were more forms of industrial or post-consumer waste that could substitute for sand, it would be a win-win. A few years ago when China was at the peak of it’s building spree, it had a similar shortage of portland cement, another critical ingredient in concrete. While China lacked portland cement, it had a chemically similar waste product from coal power plants… fly ash. China successfully turned this nuisance waste product into a valuable new resource.

Other coal waste products, such as bottom ash, are being explored as replacements or partial replacements for sand. Other industrial waste products from the iron and copper smelting, also appear to be usable in commercial concrete. With more research, many more materials are likely to be found.

Turning waste glass into synthetic sand is a good start, but we need to find many other waste products to make high-quality concrete. Use of industrial waste would be highly y beneficial in Eastern Europe, where decades of Soviet-era coal and smelting tailings might finally be removed and turned into One Band One Road Initiative construction projects.

Cleaning up the environment and creating new construction jobs is a win/win. But if we want to keep the economy humming and avoid the next big shortage, we need to speed up research and create sand alternatives. If not, well… civilization is going to need a new foundation!


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