Peak sand

How could we possibly be running out of sand?

Never before has Earth been graced with the prosperity we are seeing today, with countries like China, India and Brazil booming. But that also means that demand for sand has never been so great. It is used in the production of computer chips, plates and mobile phones. More than anything, though, it is used to make cement. You can find it in the skyscrapers in Shanghai, the artificial islands of Dubai and in Germany’s autobahns.

In 2012, Germany alone mined 235 million tons of sand and gravel, with 95 percent of it going to the construction industry. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates global consumption at an average of 40 billion tons per year, with close to 30 billion tons of that used in concrete. That would be enough to build a 27-meter by 27-meter (88.5 feet) wall circling the globe. Sands are “now being extracted at a rate far greater than their renewal,” a March 2014 UNEP report found. “Sand is rarer than one thinks,” it reads.

And renewal is a long, tedious process:

Sand is similar to fossil fuels like natural gas, coal or oil: It takes thousands of years to form — for rock to be naturally ground down into sand with rivers washing, grinding and breaking up stone on their long journeys to the sea. But the global population is growing, and since the start of the economic booms in Asia and Africa, sand doesn’t even make it to the oceans anymore in some places. It often gets fished out before getting there.

One perhaps-unexpected source of sand depletion is fracking:

According to the 14Q2 ProppantIQ report, recently published by PacWest Consulting Partners, robust growth in frac sand demand is driving dramatic growth in the North American proppant market. Proppant demand is expected to grow by 23% per annum through 2016, driven primarily by frac sand (+24% per annum). The RCS and Ceramics markets are also expected to grow at 9% and 2% per annum, respectively.

“We forecast strong growth in the North American market for proppant due to increasing horizontal wells and frac stages, in addition to increasing proppant volumes per stage,” says Samir Nangia, PacWest Principal. “However, there is considerable upside in our forecasts, due to the potential for faster-than-expected increases in proppant intensity (i.e. proppant/well and proppant/stage).”

“Proppant” is the stuff you mix with water plus Mystery Additives and send down the tubes to keep the fracture open while drilling. Garden-variety sand is not especially effective, but it’s cheap and cement-ish.

(With thanks to Bayou Renaissance Man.)





5 comments

  1. fillyjonk »

    3 October 2014 · 2:10 pm

    Recycling glass and concrete by grinding them up fine? (Glass is made from sand so I’m guessing ground glass would have a similar specific gravity or whatever was required)

    Send up a rocket to grab some asteroids and blow them up?

    Dismantle all the Brutalist architecture buildings and grind up their sandstone building material?

  2. McGehee »

    3 October 2014 · 3:50 pm

    I nominate the U.S. departments of education, energy, and HHS. They might as well contribute something positive to the world economy…

  3. Dick Stanley »

    4 October 2014 · 12:43 am

    Start with the White House, then work your way through the bureaucracy. That’ll lick the sand shortage.

  4. Roger Green »

    4 October 2014 · 4:59 am

    Yet another reason for me to oppose fracking, besides those Oklahoma earthquakes!

  5. Joseph Hertzlinger »

    4 October 2014 · 11:56 pm

    Obviously Communists have taken over the Sahara Desert.

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