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Sand is a naturally occurring granular material composed of finely divided rock and mineral particles. The composition of sand is highly variable, 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.
The second most common type of sand is calcium carbonate, for example aragonite, which has mostly been created, over the past half billion years, by various forms of life, like coral and shellfish. It is, for example, the primary form of sand apparent in areas where reefs have dominated the ecosystem for millions of years like the Caribbean.
In terms of particle size as used by geologists, sand particles range in diameter from 0.0625 mm (or 1⁄16 mm) to 2 mm. An individual particle in this range size is termed a sand grain. Sand grains are between gravel (with particles ranging from 2 mm up to 64 mm) 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. A 1953 engineering standard published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials set the minimum sand size at 0.074 mm. A 1938 specification of the United States Department of Agriculture was 0.05 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 (1⁄16 – 1⁄8 mm diameter), fine sand (1⁄8 mm – 1⁄4 mm), medium sand (1⁄4 mm – 1⁄2 mm), coarse sand (1⁄2 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.
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 sand formation depends on living organisms, too. The gypsum sand dunes of the White Sands National Monument 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.
The study of individual grains can reveal much historical information as to the origin and kind of transport of the grain. 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.
The use of alternatives to river sand is increasing with the ban on sand mining, general decline in the availability of river sand, and pressure from active environmental groups to protect nature.
The widely accepted replacement for natural sand is M-sand, or manufactured sand. This is produced by grinding stone gravel and also obtained as a by-product. Fine particles are left behind when rocks are cut and broken to make gravel. However, not all rock dust could serve as such a replacement. Flaky dust could affect the workability of mortar, and the presence of chemicals could affect the strength of concrete. Only those particles that meet the specifications of chemical properties, shape and size will qualify.
In Hong Kong, where a considerable amount of glass waste is produced, builders use powdered glass as a substitute for sand. Glass panes and bottles are broken, ground to a suitable size and processed. A machine crushes the glass into glass sand, which can be used as a river-sand substitute, then mixed with cement and construction waste to produce so-called eco-pavers. To make one square metre of eco-paver takes 20 kg of waste glass bottles and 50 kg of construction waste. This greatly reduces the burden on local landfills and the demand for other construction materials, such as river sand. The dredging work required to extract river sand damages the river bed and its ecological system.
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. Material safety data sheets (MSDS) for silica sand state that "excessive inhalation of crystalline silica is a serious health concern".
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.
Sand's many uses require a significant dredging industry, raising environmental concerns over fish depletion, landslides, and flooding. Countries such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia ban sand exports, citing these issues as a major factor.
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