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9 July 2023

A world built on sand

Ed Conway’s Material World shows that despite our digital lives it is rocks and minerals that power the global economy.

By Will Dunn

Outside the small town of Spruce Pine in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, there is a set of white buildings ringed by two-storey fences and security guards. Beneath these buildings is a geological formation created 380 million years ago when two palaeocontinents, Laurasia and Gondwana, crossed the great Rhxeic Ocean and smushed (not a technical term) into each other, creating a single huge landmass: Pangaea.

Several miles beneath the surface, as the tectonic plates crunched together, minerals were heated and mixed in a subterranean crucible that was, thanks to the absence of water, unusually free of impurities. It took millions of years for the rock to cool and solidify, but when it did it formed a mass of pegmatite – crystals of quartz, feldspar and mica – that seems to be unique in its purity. If quartz this pure exists anywhere else on Earth, it is yet to be discovered.

[See also: How germs shape history]

The quartz from the Spruce Pine mines has long been a closely guarded secret. At one mine, technicians would be blindfolded on arrival and led to and from the machines they maintained, without ever seeing the workings of the mine itself. The reason for such secrecy is that Spruce Pine quartz is used to make a very special kind of bowl: a crucible, free from impurities, where ultra-refined silicon (in which other elements make up less than one atom in ten billion) can be melted and spun into a single, perfect crystal in a process known as the Czochralski technique. The exceptional purity of the resulting material means it can be sliced and etched at the atomic scale, creating electronic circuits of infinitesimal detail: a finished semiconductor chip, combining many layers of this silicon wafer, can fit 100 million switches into a square millimetre.

There is only one mine that produces quartz pure enough for the Czochralski process and only one factory (the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC) that can turn these crystals into large volumes of the most advanced chips. Not only that, but within the factory are specialised machines that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. They etch the silicon using light generated by heating tiny droplets of tin to a million degrees, then reflect and focus that light using mirrors that are the smoothest surfaces in the known universe. Making such machines is rather difficult, so they, too, depend on a single factory, on the outskirts of Berlin.

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In January 2022, a fire broke out at this factory, which is owned by a Dutch company called ASML Holding. For a few days, companies around the world waited to hear if the supply of semiconductors (TSMC makes 60 per cent of the world’s output, and 90 per cent of the most advanced chips) would be interrupted, leading to a global slowdown in the production of smartphones, cars, aeroplanes, fridges, credit cards, solar panels, TVs, and everything else that depends on them (which means pretty much everything with a cable or a battery).

Fortunately, the fire didn’t affect the production of ASML’s magnificent machines, and the semiconductor supply chain – already jangled by the pandemic, which had interrupted manufacturing and skewed demand for goods – continued. If it hadn’t, a global shortage would have developed, with severe consequences for the supply of goods – and therefore inflation – around the world.

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As Ed Conway explains in Material World, his masterful exploration of the materials that underpin civilisation, ours is a world both objectively and figuratively built on sand. The most fundamental parts of our homes and workplaces are made of sand, from the plate glass and concrete that allowed for the creation of modern cities, to the glass fibres on which the internet is carried and silicon chips, which Conway follows from a fist-sized rock dug from the ground in northern Spain to their etching in the clean rooms of Taiwan. Humanity has taken the most basic, widely available material and refined it into everything from skyscrapers to components smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

In doing so we have created a new kind of instability. The more advanced our technology becomes, the more specialised the facilities needed to produce it, such that there now exists a small number of mines, factories and labs on which the whole teetering edifice of modern capitalism depends. Choke points, as they are known in the supply-chain world, are everywhere: each one carries the risk of disruption, inflation and recession. Some are geopolitical in nature: Taiwan, where TSMC creates the world’s semiconductors, considers itself an independent territory, but China, which is years behind on chip-making, disagrees.

It is not only in the semiconductor chain that these choke points exist: as Conway explores the significance of salt, he visits a room in Runcorn in which equipment that uses as much electricity as the city of Liverpool dismantles salt molecules to create, among other things, almost all of the hypochlorite used in Britain’s purification systems. Were this one facility to go offline, an engineer tells Conway, the country would have to begin rationing drinking water within a week.

The biography of an element or material is now a familiar format – the story of sand is told in Vince Beiser’s The World in a Grain, while Mark Kurlansky has made a career of single-noun titles including Salt – and other authors (such as Bill Bryson in At Home) have recounted the secret histories of quotidian objects. Like Bryson, Conway delights in facts – did you know that most of London’s concrete is made with sand from the lost country of Doggerland? Did you know there are four tonnes of steel for everyone in the world? – but what distinguishes Material World is his access. Although he is very well informed, this is not a remote, academic analysis: he has been to the salt mines beneath the North Sea, the mineral railway of the Atacama Desert, the Chilean town being swallowed by the world’s demand for copper, and as a TV journalist (Conway is the economics editor of Sky News) he conveys a vivid sense of these places.

In doing so he explores one of the great lies of the modern world. We could lose a major social media platform or search engine tomorrow and we would recover – we might even find ourselves better off. The major impact would be in financial markets, which have invested enormous sums in companies such as Meta and Google, leading figures such as Matt Hancock to declare the arrival of a “digital economy”. The truth is that we notice software because it’s the interface for so much of our work and communication, but in reality we live, as previous generations did, in an economy of oil, glass, steel and sand. So much of human progress still involves digging up the right rocks and changing them, usually with fire, into tools or fuels. 

The comforting fiction of the digital world allows us to ignore this reality, but we do so at our peril, because it is in the material world that the single most important change – climate change – is taking place, and it is only in the material world that the answers to that predicament can be found.

Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future
Ed Conway
WH Allen, 512pp, £22

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[See also: The politics of the new space race]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation