A Solution to the Sand Shortage With a Lower Carbon Footprint
The global sand shortage is having an impact on industries across the board including computer chip manufacturers, glass making, and construction. Sand is piling up behind dams, disrupting the natural replenishment process in ecosystems around the world, and its increasing scarcity is making it the focus of "the new gold rush" for smugglers, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous developers around the world.
As filmmaker Denis Delestrac describes the situation in the synopsis for his 2012 documentary film Sand Wars, "Every house, skyscraper, and glass building, every bridge, airport, and sidewalk in our modern society depends on sand."
Rising urban development around the world relies on concrete infrastructure which increases the strain on an already depleted resource. According to this report at Durability and Design, the Dutch design team at Atelier NL stated that sand "is being excavated at a rate faster than it can renew itself."
Also, Business Insider reports that worldwide sand usage now tops out at 50 billion tons annually, pointing out that the enormous volume is more than twice the amount of sand produced by every river in the world.
The major end user for sand is the concrete industry which produces 4 billion tons of the world's favorite construction material annually. Aside from the sand shortage, concrete finds itself at the center of controversy for its large carbon footprint, a result of the fossil fuel energy and resulting carbon dioxide emissions required to produce the cement binder from limestone.
The move toward a greener alternative to traditional concrete is driven by all of these factors and several new approaches are in development. One of the most promising is a new concrete aptly called "Finite."
Finite: Using Fine-grained Windswept Sand For Concrete
Four post-graduate students at the Imperial College of London turned their sights to the desert to provide a win/win solution to the sand shortage while lowering the carbon footprint in concrete. Matteo Maccario, Carolyn Tam, Hamza Oza, and Saki Maruyami teamed up to create "Finite," an alternative building material for which desert sand is the bulk ingredient.
Up until the Imperial College research team's development of Finite, desert sand was considered useless. The fine windswept grains were too eroded, leaving them too round to interlock and bind for reliably strong concrete. Desert sand was simply too powdery, but Finite changes all that.
"Finite" is also the name of the startup enterprise producing the new material. While the company is understandably keeping the actual binders used in their desert sand-based material a trade secret, they are highlighting its sustainable beneficial properties including:
- Strength equal to concrete
- Low carbon footprint
Early experiments in resin casting also showed that Finite takes on the inherent colors and gradation of the filler. The team pointed out to Durability and Design that Finite is more easily reusable than traditional concrete which uses energy to be ground up for use in the next batch. Finite is nontoxic and can be left to decompose naturally.
The Finite team believes that their new material can be especially beneficial for construction in the Middle East where desert sand is an untapped resource. Those countries in that region now rely on expensive marine sand imports.
At this stage, more thorough testing is required before Finite can be considered as an alternative for concrete in heavy construction. The company claims that at present, Finite's strength is equal to traditional housing bricks and residential concrete.
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