The Great Sand Castle

Words by
Federico Sargentone

From architecture in Ancient Egypt to the discovery of transparent glass in 15th-century Italy, sand has played a prominent role in driving scientific and technological progress, becoming more and more of a commodity exchanged on global markets.

Fun fact: you can make stuff out of sand. That’s no news when you look at the history of civilization: from architecture in Ancient Egypt to the discovery of transparent glass in 15th-century Italy, sand has played a prominent role in driving scientific and technological progress. And yet, it’s still a bit surprising to realize the extent to which sand is involved in determining today’s lifestyle and consumption habits. Nearly everything we do (or buy) today is somehow dependent on the industrial employment of sand—the natural resource most consumed by human beings, second only to water and air.
The commodification of sand in the name of technological advancement has recently become a hot topic among scientists, writers and activists. Books like The World in a Grain by journalist Vince Beiser and documentaries like the award-winning Sand Wars by Dieter Delestrac prompted a debate on the environmental catastrophes caused by intensive sand extraction on land and in the oceans.

While the supply might appear infinite, sand is becoming more and more of a commodity exchanged on global markets, resulting in its predicted scarcity. Among the many ways by which global hyper-corporations have exploited sand to produce things—concrete buildings being the most permanent testimony—a more sophisticated process of adoption has made its way into the everyday life of a digital native.
Ever wondered where Silicon Valley took its name from? It all began when Robert Noyce found a way to jam-pack several transistors (electronic switches that control the flow of electricity) into a tiny piece of ultra-pure silicon. The year was 1971—Noyce had founded Intel in Mountain View, California, a few years earlier—and this tiny, solid tablet of silver was the first microchip ever released on the market. Forty-eight years later, the chips running our computers, iPhones, the Internet, and the entire digital world are entirely dependent on silicon, which is made from sand.
If you don’t believe it, just Google it. It’s amazing how many things will come up if you type “silicon sand.” Arguably the most compelling find amidst an infinite scroll of cute tiny piles of sand (often romantically held by a pair of cupped hands) is a two-minute video, published on 6 November 2009 via Intel’s YouTube channel, that shows how a microprocessor is made out of sand. A generic stock image of a desert sand dune opens the first scene of the video; soon, it transforms itself into a hot liquid, solidifying before eventually being cut into disks by animated flying saw blades. The video’s 1.2+ million viewers are squarely divided into two camps: the first complains about the maximum resolution of 240p for a 3D-generated video by one of the world’s leading companies in computer processors; the second simply wonders incredulously, “pay 200$ for sand?” Yes! Most of the world’s sand grains are in fact composed of quartz, which is a form of silicon dioxide, also known as silica; the chemical chart of sand taken from the Sahara Desert, for example, shows a 21.26% prevalence of the material. Silicon is the seventh most abundant element in the universe, explains geologist Michael Welland in Sand: The Never-Ending Story. Most widely distributed in dusts, sands, planetoids and planets as various forms of silica, it is the second-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust (about 28% by mass) after oxygen.

Finding silicon, then, is easy: it shows up practically everywhere, bound together with oxygen to form SiO2, aka quartz. But the challenge of finding a viable way to exploit the element lies in the hyper-articulated purification and filtering processes that are performed in order to deliver electronic-grade silicon, which has a purity of 99.9999%. To get the silicon, oxygen is first removed by mixing it with carbon and heating it to temperatures beyond 2,000°C. High-purity silicon dioxide particles are the essential raw materials from which we make computer chips, fiber-optic cables, and other hightech hardware—the physical components on which the digital world runs.
A May 2019 article published in The New York Times shows how 750,000 miles of undersea cable propel data down the threads at nearly the speed of light, using fiber-optic technology. Owned and controlled by tech-giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook, the physical infrastructure of the Internet connects the continents to support our insatiable demand for communication and entertainment. The more powerful this infrastructure becomes, the more exponentially the demand for powerful devices increases—and with it, the demand for silicon. Even in his infamous 2007 keynote speech announcing the release of the iPhone, Steve Jobs acknowledged that he would need a “ton of custom silicon” in order to sustain the “tremendous amount of high technology” in his new invention.
It’s always hard to link the weight of technology back to the specific physical elements that actually make it possible. But though it’s even harder to imagine Jobs carrying the burden of a suitcase filled with sand, as does Lucky in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the irony of a hi-tech legacy built on the most seemingly futile materials remains.

Federico Sargentone is Assistant Editor and Curator of KALEIDOSCOPE.

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