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The Next Great Building Material? It Could Be Sand From Deserts

A new material uses abundant smooth-grained sand and a secret binder to reduce the carbon footprint of construction.

Did you know we’re running out of the gritty sand that’s used to make concrete? Scientists have called it “a looming tragedy of the sand commons,” spurred by the mining of sand to create millions of tons of building material.

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Researchers at the Imperial College London have invented a new building material that uses smooth desert sand–useless for construction until now–instead of the gritty sand needed to make concrete. Finite–the name of the material invented by post-graduate students Matteo Maccario, Carolyn Tam, Hamza Oza, and Saki Maruyami–is as strong as concrete and non-toxic.  But it has three other properties that can make it a key fight the current environmental crisis on three different fronts.

[Photo: courtesy Finite]
It turns out that not all sand is created equal. “Desert sand,” the inventors explain, “has little use [for construction], as its grains are too smooth and fine to bind together.” Or it didn’t until Finite, which uses the regular, wind-swept sand abundantly found in deserts all over the world instead of water-swept sand, the kind you find in rivers, beaches, and lakes.

According to the research team, abundant desert sand makes Finite economically competitive against concrete but, more importantly, it may help save millions of delicate water-based ecosystems around the world.

Unbeknown to most, the intensive mining of sand all around the world is having a gigantic impact on water-based environments. This sand, crucial to fuel the urban development explosion happening in areas like China, India, and the Middle East, is dredged from beaches, lakes, and river beds. And since we are running out of it, the mining is becoming more and more aggressive, destroying all those delicate environments, drying them in the long run, and killing millions of animals in the process. Finite doesn’t use this sand at all.

[Photo: courtesy Finite]

Meanwhile, Finite’s secret binding ingredient has less than half the carbon footprint of cement paste, according to its creators. Cement paste accounts for an estimated 5% of the global C02 production. Its carbon footprint is so large that there are multiple global efforts looking to cut its usage.

And finally, its creators say Finite is easily recyclable. They claim that you can let it decompose naturally or you can deconstruct it safely. The recycling process is a secret but talking over email,  Oza described the gist: “We use a non-toxic solution that allows the material to enter a more liquid state that can be recast or reapplied” in new Finite-based constructions. (Disposing of concrete after a demolition isn’t easy, and you can’t reuse it.)

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[Photo: courtesy Finite]

That makes Finite ideal for short-term infrastructure, the researchers say, like pavilions. They believe that it could be used for permanent structures too, but they need further testing and certifications for that. In fact, according to Oza, that’s the reason why they’re not commercializing it yet: “We are currently working on getting Finite approved for building regulations.”

And as to the name, it may be slightly contradictory since Finite is fully recyclable and reusable. Shouldn’t it be Infinite? Or perhaps its name is a reminder of our planet’s limited natural resources–sand included.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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