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.