Why the world is running out of sand

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It may be little more than grains of weathered rock, and can be found in deserts and on beaches around the world, but sand is also the world’s second most consumed natural resource.

A South African entrepreneur shot dead in September. Two Indian villagers killed in a gun battle in August. A Mexican environmental activist murdered in June.

Though separated by thousands of miles, these killings share an unlikely cause. They are some of the latest casualties in a growing wave of violence sparked by the struggle for one of the 21st Century’s most important, but least appreciated, commodities: ordinary sand.

Trivial though it may seem, sand is a critical ingredient of our lives. It is the primary raw material that modern cities are made from. The concrete used to construct shopping malls, offices, and apartment blocks, along with the asphalt we use to build roads connecting them, are largely just sand and gravel glued together. The glass in every window, windshield, and smart phone screen is made of melted-down sand. And even the silicon chips inside our phones and computers – along with virtually every other piece of electronic equipment in your home – are made from sand.

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Astronauts make cement in space for the first time

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European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst works on an experiment aboard the International Space Station looking into how cement reacts in space.

Concrete could provide humans in space with better protection from radiation and extreme temperatures than many other materials.

In the future, when humans live in and visit space, they’re going to need places to stay and work. That calls for durable infrastructure such as concrete. For the first time, astronauts made cement in space as part of a project looking into the effects of microgravity, NASA said last week.

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Will 3D printing solve the affordable housing crisis?

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3D printing’s impact on construction is slowly materializing.

Owning one’s own house—a dream of human beings ever since Cro-Magnons looked out of their caves at the retreating glaciers—has been sometimes more, sometimes less affordable. Currently, we’re in one of the less affordable phases. With construction accounting for almost 60 percent of the cost of a new single-family home, measures that reduce labor and simplify material needs may make the dream more accessible for many.

Cue the 3D-printing evangelists. The 2010s have been ringing with the hosannas of houses extruded from a 3D printer in hours, sometimes many of them per day. The options seem limitless, with made-to-order versions in concrete, like Icon’s tiny house in Austin; ABS plastic and carbon fiber, like Branch Technology’s prototype home in Chattanooga; and recycled materials, like Chinese manufacturer WinSun’s five-story apartment building in Suzhou. By simplifying construction, we’re told, 3D printing can provide affordable shelter to everyone from the working poor to refugees.

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Researchers are developing a sustainable concrete alternative made of desert sand

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The strength of bricks and concrete with half the carbon footprint

Sand is the hidden ingredient of design. It’s used to make glass and computer chips, and to bulk and strengthen the concrete used in many of the buildings around us. Though it seems like an abundant resource, sand miners are depleting the gritty, building-grade sand faster than it can be replenished, which has led to a shortage that puts both the environment and industry at risk.

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China’s Short Life Span of Buildings Creates Huge Waste

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Workers demolish a 20-story building that was illegally built in Wuhan, Hubei province.

The life span of the average residential building in China, the largest cement consumer in the world, has been blamed for causing tremendous waste. “Every year, new buildings in China total up to 2 billion square meters and use up 40 percent of the world’s cement and steel, but our buildings can only stand 25 to 30 years on average,” Qiu Baoxing, vice-minister of housing and urban-rural development, said at a recent international forum on green and energy-efficient building.

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