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Sand dunes in the Idehan Ubari, Libya Libya 4608 Idehan Ubari Dunes Luca Galuzzi 2007.jpg
Sand dunes in the Idehan Ubari, Libya
Depiction of sands:
glass, dune, quartz,
volcanic, biogenic coral, pink coral,
volcanic, garnet, olivine.
Samples are from the Gobi Desert, Estonia, Hawaii and the mainland United States. (1x1 cm each) 00065 sand collage.jpg
Depiction of sands:
glass, dune, quartz,
volcanic, biogenic coral, pink coral,
volcanic, garnet, olivine.
Samples are from the Gobi Desert, Estonia, Hawaii and the mainland United States. (1×1 cm each)

Sand is a granular material composed of finely divided mineral particles. Sand has various compositions but is defined by its grain size. Sand grains are smaller than gravel and coarser than silt. Sand can also refer to a textural class of soil or soil type; i.e., a soil containing more than 85 percent sand-sized particles by mass. [2]


The composition of sand varies, depending on the local rock sources and conditions, but the most common constituent of sand in inland continental settings and non-tropical coastal settings is silica (silicon dioxide, or SiO2), usually in the form of quartz.

Calcium carbonate is the second most common type of sand, for example, aragonite, which has mostly been created, over the past 500 million years, by various forms of life, like coral and shellfish. For example, it is the primary form of sand apparent in areas where reefs have dominated the ecosystem for millions of years, as in the Caribbean. Somewhat more rarely, sand may be composed of calcium sulfate, such as gypsum and selenite, as is found in places such as White Sands National Park and Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S.

Sand is a non-renewable resource over human timescales, and sand suitable for making concrete is in high demand. [3] Desert sand, although plentiful, is not suitable for concrete. Fifty billion tons of beach sand and fossil sand are used each year for construction. [4]


Heavy minerals (dark) in a quartz beach sand (Chennai, India) HeavyMineralsBeachSand.jpg
Heavy minerals (dark) in a quartz beach sand (Chennai, India)
Sand from Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah. These are grains of quartz with a hematite coating providing the orange color. CoralPinkSandDunesSand.JPG
Sand from Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah. These are grains of quartz with a hematite coating providing the orange color.
Sand from Pismo Beach, California. Components are primarily quartz, chert, igneous rock, and shell fragments. PismoBeachSand.JPG
Sand from Pismo Beach, California. Components are primarily quartz, chert, igneous rock, and shell fragments.

The exact definition of sand varies. The scientific Unified Soil Classification System used in engineering and geology corresponds to US Standard Sieves, and defines sand as particles with a diameter of between 0.074 and 4.75 millimeters. [5] By another definition, in terms of particle size as used by geologists, sand particles range in diameter from 0.0625 mm (or 116 mm) a volume of approximately 0.00012 cubic millimetres, to 2 mm, a volume of approximately 4.2 cubic millimetres, the difference in volumes being 34,688 measures difference. [6] Any particle falling within this range of sizes is termed a sand grain. Sand grains are between gravel (with particles ranging from 2 mm up to 64 mm by the latter system, and from 4.75 mm up to 75 mm in the former) and silt (particles smaller than 0.0625 mm down to 0.004 mm). The size specification between sand and gravel has remained constant for more than a century, but particle diameters as small as 0.02 mm were considered sand under the Albert Atterberg standard in use during the early 20th century. The grains of sand in Archimedes' The Sand Reckoner written around 240 BCE, were 0.02 mm in diameter. A 1938 specification of the United States Department of Agriculture was 0.05 mm. [7] A 1953 engineering standard published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials set the minimum sand size at 0.074 mm. Sand feels gritty when rubbed between the fingers. Silt, by comparison, feels like flour.

ISO 14688 grades sands as fine, medium, and coarse with ranges 0.063 mm to 0.2 mm to 0.63 mm to 2.0 mm. In the United States, sand is commonly divided into five sub-categories based on size: very fine sand (11618 mm diameter), fine sand (18 mm – 14 mm), medium sand (14 mm – 12 mm), coarse sand (12 mm – 1 mm), and very coarse sand (1 mm – 2 mm). These sizes are based on the Krumbein phi scale, where size in Φ = -log2D; D being the particle size in mm. On this scale, for sand the value of Φ varies from −1 to +4, with the divisions between sub-categories at whole numbers.

Close up of black volcanic sand from Perissa, Santorini, Greece Volcanic sand (Perissa, Santorini, Greece).jpg
Close up of black volcanic sand from Perissa, Santorini, Greece

The most common constituent of sand, in inland continental settings and non-tropical coastal settings, is silica (silicon dioxide, or SiO2), usually in the form of quartz, which, because of its chemical inertness and considerable hardness, is the most common mineral resistant to weathering.

The composition of mineral sand is highly variable, depending on the local rock sources and conditions. The bright white sands found in tropical and subtropical coastal settings are eroded limestone and may contain coral and shell fragments in addition to other organic or organically derived fragmental material, suggesting that sand formation depends on living organisms, too. [8] The gypsum sand dunes of the White Sands National Park in New Mexico are famous for their bright, white color. Arkose is a sand or sandstone with considerable feldspar content, derived from weathering and erosion of a (usually nearby) granitic rock outcrop. Some sands contain magnetite, chlorite, glauconite, or gypsum. Sands rich in magnetite are dark to black in color, as are sands derived from volcanic basalts and obsidian. Chlorite-glauconite bearing sands are typically green in color, as are sands derived from basaltic lava with a high olivine content. Many sands, especially those found extensively in Southern Europe, have iron impurities within the quartz crystals of the sand, giving a deep yellow color. Sand deposits in some areas contain garnets and other resistant minerals, including some small gemstones.


Rocks erode or weather over a long period of time, mainly by water and wind, and their sediments are transported downstream. These sediments continue to break apart into smaller pieces until they become fine grains of sand. The type of rock the sediment originated from and the intensity of the environment give different compositions of sand. The most common rock to form sand is granite, where the feldspar minerals dissolve faster than the quartz, causing the rock to break apart into small pieces. In high energy environments rocks break apart much faster than in more calm settings. In granite rocks this results in more feldspar minerals in the sand because they do not have as much time to dissolve away. The term for sand formed by weathering is "epiclastic." [9]

Sand from rivers are collected either from the river itself or its flood plain and accounts for the majority of the sand used in the construction industry. Because of this, many small rivers have been depleted, causing environmental concern and economic losses to adjacent land. The rate of sand mining in such areas greatly outweighs the rate the sand can replenish, making it a non-renewable resource. [10]

Sand dunes are a consequence of dry conditions or wind deposition. The Sahara Desert is very dry because of its geographic location and proximity to the equator. It is known for its vast sand dunes, which exist mainly due to a lack of vegetation and water. Over time, wind blows away fine particles, such as clay and dead organic matter, leaving only sand and larger rocks. Only 15% of the Sahara is sand dunes, while 70% is bare rock. [11] The wind is responsible for creating these different environments and shaping the sand to be round and smooth. These properties make desert sand unusable for construction. [12]

Beach sand is also formed by erosion. Over thousands of years, rocks are eroded near the shoreline from the constant motion of waves and the sediments build up. Weathering and river deposition also accelerate the process of creating a beach, along with marine animals interacting with rocks, such as eating the algae off of them. Once there is a sufficient amount of sand, the beach acts as a barrier to keep the land from eroding any further. This sand is ideal for construction as it is angular and of various sizes. [13]

Marine sand (or ocean sand) comes from sediments transported into the ocean and the erosion of ocean rocks. The thickness of the sand layer varies, however it is common to have more sand closer to land; this type of sand is ideal for construction and is a very valuable commodity. Europe is the main miners of marine sand, which greatly hurts ecosystems and local fisheries. [10]


Scanning electron micrograph showing grains of sand Sand under electron microscope.jpg
Scanning electron micrograph showing grains of sand
Pitted sand grains from the Western Desert, Egypt. Pitting is a consequence of wind transportation. Pitted sand grains Western Desert.jpg
Pitted sand grains from the Western Desert, Egypt. Pitting is a consequence of wind transportation.

The study of individual grains can reveal much historical information as to the origin and kind of transport of the grain. [14] Quartz sand that is recently weathered from granite or gneiss quartz crystals will be angular. It is called grus in geology or sharp sand in the building trade where it is preferred for concrete, and in gardening where it is used as a soil amendment to loosen clay soils. Sand that is transported long distances by water or wind will be rounded, with characteristic abrasion patterns on the grain surface. Desert sand is typically rounded.

People who collect sand as a hobby are known as arenophiles. Organisms that thrive in sandy environments are psammophiles. [15]


Sand grains of yellow building sand. Microscope Lumam P-8. EPI lighting. The photo of each grain of sand is the result of multifocal stacking. Peschinki-1. Zheltyi stroitel'nyi pesok.jpg
Sand grains of yellow building sand. Microscope Lumam P-8. EPI lighting. The photo of each grain of sand is the result of multifocal stacking.

Resources and environmental concerns

Only some sands are suitable for the construction industry, for example for making concrete. Grains of desert sand are rounded by being blown in the wind, and for this reason do not produce solid concrete, unlike the rough sand from the sea. Because of the growth of population and of cities and the consequent construction activity there is a huge demand for these special kinds of sand, and natural sources are running low. In 2012 French director Denis Delestrac made a documentary called "Sand Wars" about the impact of the lack of construction sand. It shows the ecological and economic effects of both legal and illegal trade in construction sand. [18] [19] [20]

To retrieve the sand, the method of hydraulic dredging is used. This works by pumping the top few meters of sand out of the water and filling it into a boat, which is then transported back to land for processing. All marine life mixed in with the extracted sand is killed and the ecosystem can continue to suffer for years after the mining is complete. Not only does this affect marine life, but also the local fishing industries because of the loss of life, and communities living close to the water's edge. When sand is taken out of the water it increases the risk of landslides, which can lead to loss of agricultural land and/or damage to dwellings. [21]

Sand's many uses require a significant dredging industry, raising environmental concerns over fish depletion, landslides, and flooding. [22] Countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia ban sand exports, citing these issues as a major factor. [23] It is estimated that the annual consumption of sand and gravel is 40 billion tons and sand is a US$70 billion global industry. [24] With increasing use, more is expected to come from recycling and alternatives to sand. [25]

The global demand for sand in 2017 was 9.55 billion tons as part of a $99.5 billion industry. [26] In April 2022, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report stating that 50 billion tons of sand and gravel were being used every year. The report made 10 recommendations, including a ban on beach extraction, to avert a crisis, and move toward a circular economy for the two resources. [27] [28]


While sand is generally non-toxic, sand-using activities such as sandblasting require precautions. Bags of silica sand used for sandblasting now carry labels warning the user to wear respiratory protection to avoid breathing the resulting fine silica dust. Safety data sheets for silica sand state that "excessive inhalation of crystalline silica is a serious health concern". [29]

In areas of high pore water pressure, sand and salt water can form quicksand, which is a colloid hydrogel that behaves like a liquid. Quicksand produces a considerable barrier to escape for creatures caught within, who often die from exposure (not from submersion) as a result.

People sometimes dig holes in the sand at beaches for recreational purposes, but if too deep they can result in serious injury or death in the event of a collapse. [30]


Manufactured sand (M sand) is sand made from rock by artificial processes, usually for construction purposes in cement or concrete. It differs from river sand by being more angular, and has somewhat different properties. [31]

Case studies

In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the use of sand has been very demanding in the construction of infrastructure and creating new islands. They used up their own reserves and also imported sand from Australia. There have been three projects to create artificial islands needing more than 835 million tonnes of sand, which cost more than US$26 billion. [32]

See also

The Earth seen from Apollo 17 with transparent background.png  Earth Sciencesportal

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sandstone</span> Type of sedimentary rock

Sandstone is a clastic sedimentary rock composed mainly of sand-sized silicate grains. Sandstones comprise about 20–25% of all sedimentary rocks.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Beach</span> Area of loose particles at the edge of the sea or other body of water

A beach is a landform alongside a body of water which consists of loose particles. The particles composing a beach are typically made from rock, such as sand, gravel, shingle, pebbles, etc., or biological sources, such as mollusc shells or coralline algae. Sediments settle in different densities and structures, depending on the local wave action and weather, creating different textures, colors and gradients or layers of material.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sedimentary rock</span> Rock formed by the deposition and cementation of particles

Sedimentary rocks are types of rock that are formed by the accumulation or deposition of mineral or organic particles at Earth's surface, followed by cementation. Sedimentation is the collective name for processes that cause these particles to settle in place. The particles that form a sedimentary rock are called sediment, and may be composed of geological detritus (minerals) or biological detritus. The geological detritus originated from weathering and erosion of existing rocks, or from the solidification of molten lava blobs erupted by volcanoes. The geological detritus is transported to the place of deposition by water, wind, ice or mass movement, which are called agents of denudation. Biological detritus was formed by bodies and parts of dead aquatic organisms, as well as their fecal mass, suspended in water and slowly piling up on the floor of water bodies. Sedimentation may also occur as dissolved minerals precipitate from water solution.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sediment</span> Particulate solid matter that is deposited on the surface of land

Sediment is a naturally occurring material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of wind, water, or ice or by the force of gravity acting on the particles. For example, sand and silt can be carried in suspension in river water and on reaching the sea bed deposited by sedimentation; if buried, they may eventually become sandstone and siltstone through lithification.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gravel</span> Mix of crumbled stones: grain size range between 2 – 63 mm according to ISO 14688

Gravel is a loose aggregation of rock fragments. Gravel occurs naturally on Earth as a result of sedimentary and erosive geological processes; it is also produced in large quantities commercially as crushed stone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Silt</span> Classification of soil or sediment

Silt is granular material of a size between sand and clay and composed mostly of broken grains of quartz. Silt may occur as a soil or as sediment mixed in suspension with water. Silt usually has a floury feel when dry, and lacks plasticity when wet. Silt can also be felt by the tongue as granular when placed on the front teeth.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Regolith</span> A layer of loose, heterogeneous superficial deposits covering solid rock

Regolith is a blanket of unconsolidated, loose, heterogeneous superficial deposits covering solid rock. It includes dust, broken rocks, and other related materials and is present on Earth, the Moon, Mars, some asteroids, and other terrestrial planets and moons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quartzite</span> Hard, non-foliated metamorphic rock

Quartzite is a hard, non-foliated metamorphic rock which was originally pure quartz sandstone. Sandstone is converted into quartzite through heating and pressure usually related to tectonic compression within orogenic belts. Pure quartzite is usually white to grey, though quartzites often occur in various shades of pink and red due to varying amounts of hematite. Other colors, such as yellow, green, blue and orange, are due to other minerals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Siltstone</span> Sedimentary rock which has a grain size in the silt range

Siltstone, also known as aleurolite, is a clastic sedimentary rock that is composed mostly of silt. It is a form of mudrock with a low clay mineral content, which can be distinguished from shale by its lack of fissility.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Soil mechanics</span> Branch of soil physics and applied mechanics that describes the behavior of soils

Soil mechanics is a branch of soil physics and applied mechanics that describes the behavior of soils. It differs from fluid mechanics and solid mechanics in the sense that soils consist of a heterogeneous mixture of fluids and particles but soil may also contain organic solids and other matter. Along with rock mechanics, soil mechanics provides the theoretical basis for analysis in geotechnical engineering, a subdiscipline of civil engineering, and engineering geology, a subdiscipline of geology. Soil mechanics is used to analyze the deformations of and flow of fluids within natural and man-made structures that are supported on or made of soil, or structures that are buried in soils. Example applications are building and bridge foundations, retaining walls, dams, and buried pipeline systems. Principles of soil mechanics are also used in related disciplines such as geophysical engineering, coastal engineering, agricultural engineering, hydrology and soil physics.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clastic rock</span> Sedimentary rocks made of mineral or rock fragments

Clastic rocks are composed of fragments, or clasts, of pre-existing minerals and rock. A clast is a fragment of geological detritus, chunks, and smaller grains of rock broken off other rocks by physical weathering. Geologists use the term clastic to refer to sedimentary rocks and particles in sediment transport, whether in suspension or as bed load, and in sediment deposits.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Heavy mineral sands ore deposits</span> Ore deposits of rare earth metals

Heavy mineral sands are a class of ore deposit which is an important source of zirconium, titanium, thorium, tungsten, rare-earth elements, the industrial minerals diamond, sapphire, garnet, and occasionally precious metals or gemstones.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Construction aggregate</span> Coarse to fine grain rock materials used in concrete

Construction aggregate, or simply aggregate, is a broad category of coarse- to medium-grained particulate material used in construction, including sand, gravel, crushed stone, slag, recycled concrete and geosynthetic aggregates. Aggregates are the most mined materials in the world. Aggregates are a component of composite materials such as concrete and asphalt; the aggregate serves as reinforcement to add strength to the overall composite material. Due to the relatively high hydraulic conductivity value as compared to most soils, aggregates are widely used in drainage applications such as foundation and French drains, septic drain fields, retaining wall drains, and roadside edge drains. Aggregates are also used as base material under foundations, roads, and railroads. In other words, aggregates are used as a stable foundation or road/rail base with predictable, uniform properties, or as a low-cost extender that binds with more expensive cement or asphalt to form concrete. Although most kinds of aggregate require a form of binding agent, there are types of self-binding aggregate which require no form of binding agent.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cementation (geology)</span> Process of chemical precipitation bonding sedimentary grains

Cementation involves ions carried in groundwater chemically precipitating to form new crystalline material between sedimentary grains. The new pore-filling minerals forms "bridges" between original sediment grains, thereby binding them together. In this way, sand becomes sandstone, and gravel becomes conglomerate or breccia. Cementation occurs as part of the diagenesis or lithification of sediments. Cementation occurs primarily below the water table regardless of sedimentary grain sizes present. Large volumes of pore water must pass through sediment pores for new mineral cements to crystallize and so millions of years are generally required to complete the cementation process. Common mineral cements include calcite, quartz, and silica phases like cristobalite, iron oxides, and clay minerals; other mineral cements also occur.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Decomposed granite</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tunnel rock recycling</span>

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Further reading

Sand mining side-effects