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When you think of sand, you might envision pristine beaches or vast expanses of desert. But sand is probably a lot more important to your life than you realize.
The hidden tale of the ubiquitous mineral is the entire premise behind The World In A Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization by Vince Beiser.
In an excerpt published by WIRED, Beiser describes some time he spent in a remote area in the Appalachian Mountains. The area is known for being rich in various minerals and rocks — although the most important to those of us who love or rely on technology is quartz.
You see, silicon dioxide is a key element in the production of computer chips. In nature, silicon dioxide is often found in quartz sand. Without this sand, Beiser writers, our computers, tablets and smartphones would not be possible. (Hence the name “Silicon Valley.”)
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The town of Spruce Pine, which Beiser visited, is home to some of the purest natural quartz in the world.
“In fact, there’s an excellent chance that the chip that makes your laptop or cell phone work was made using sand from this obscure Appalachian backwater,” Beiser writes.
This ultra-pure quartz is sold to companies who fashion it into what are called “crucibles.” Through further processes, they eventually become giant silicon crystals called ingots and sliced into thin wafers.
While some are sold off to manufacturers who produce solar panels, the cream-of-the-crop are polished to “mirror smoothness” and sold to chipmaking firms like Intel.
But that’s not the end of sand’s journey. Chipmakers will then imprint transistors on these wafers in an extremely delicate process that even a single particle of dust can derail.
At the end of the process, the wafers are cut into chips. Computer chips, “the brains inside your mobile phone or laptop.”
“The whole process requires hundreds of precise, carefully controlled steps,” Beiser wrote. “The chip that results is easily one of the most complicated man?made objects on Earth, yet made with the most common stuff on Earth: humble sand.”