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The Ultra-Pure, Super-Secret Sand That Makes Your Phone Possible

Alex Glover is a recently retired geologist who has spent decades hunting for valuable minerals in the hillsides and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains that surround Spruce Pine, North Carolina. The wooded mountains surrounding it, though, are rich in all kinds of desirable rocks, some valued for their industrial uses, some for their pure prettiness. But it’s the mineral in Glover’s bag — snowy white grains, soft as powdered sugar — that is by far the most important these days. It’s quartz, but not just any quartz. Spruce Pine, it turns out, is the source of the purest natural quartz — a species of pristine sand — ever found on Earth.

This ultra-elite deposit of silicon dioxide particles plays a key role in manufacturing the silicon used to make computer chips. In fact, there’s an excellent chance the chip that makes your laptop or cell phone work was made using sand from this obscure Appalachian backwater. Most of the world’s sand grains are composed of quartz, which is a form of silicon dioxide, also known as silica. High-purity silicon dioxide particles are the essential raw materials from which we make computer chips, fiber-optic cables, and other high-tech hardware — the physical components on which the virtual world runs.

Stare Into The Lights My Pretties

The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust

“Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I’m here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.

You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?

After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way. As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we’ll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon.”