The recent awakening concerning our society and its environmental impacts has highlighted many items we produce. Plastics have always been at the forefront of this debate, especially how the raw materials for their production are obtained. Mining worldwide has long been a subject of controversy, mainly due to its environmental impact, but also because of human rights issues.
While this is a familiar topic surrounding plastics and modern batteries used in newer electric vehicles, little has been written about the process of creating fiber optic products.
The global demand for fiber optics continues to boom, as societies need smarter and faster access to information. The market size for fiber optics was $8.76 billion in 2022 and is projected to expand another 6.9% between 2023 and 2030.
With this tremendous growth and common usage worldwide, a closer look at the environmental impact of fiber optics is certainly warranted.
What Are Optical Fibers?
Optical fibers get their name from their mode of data transmission. A single fiber optic cable contains many thin-coated glass fibers that are smaller than a single strand of human hair (about 8 microns). Digitized information is coded onto pulses of light for transmission through these glass fibers. Information travels at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), making for ultra-fast transmission rates, and the glass fibers carry much more data than older copper wires.
For example, two standard copper wires are required to carry a single telephone conversation. Two strands of optical glass fiber can carry the equivalent of 24,000 telephone calls simultaneously!
Several chemical compounds are used to make the optical glass fibers used in fiber optic cables. These include:
- Silicon dioxide (SiO 2)
- Liquid silicon tetrachloride (SiCi 4)
- Germanium tetrachloride (GeCl 4)
- Phosphorus oxychloride (POC1 3)
These compounds must be extremely pure in composition in order to produce optical fibers with the best performance. Since glass fibers transmit hundreds of discrete light wave signals, a high degree of purity is vital to achieving the necessary high-grade products.
How Are the Raw Materials for Fiber Optics Obtained?
Silicon dioxide, the primary component in manufacturing optical fibers, is mostly obtained by mining. Two primary methods of mining silicon dioxide exist sand mining and quartz mining.
Since silicon dioxide is usually found mixed with sand, large-scale sand mining is carried out in open pits or dredged from river or ocean bottoms. Huge amounts of sand are scooped up and filtered with water to separate the various size particles and minerals. The sand is generally lost in this process, destroying major areas of land and habitat. Illegal sand mining is a problem throughout the world, but even legal sand mining and dredging have extensive environmental impacts.
- One example is Sierra Leone, where sand mining is a huge industry that threatens the coastline with monstrous erosion issues. It is estimated that the country loses about six meters of coastline each year due to sand mining.
- In India, sand mining is widespread and even involves “mafia” type organizations who work to undermine conservation efforts and facilitate continued over-mining of the coastlines.
Quartz mining is typically better for the environment, although every type of mining can take its toll. Most quartz is obtained through open-pit mining, which leaves a terrible scar on the landscape. Quartz is the second-most abundant mineral on earth and is used in many applications, especially electronics. The demand for quartz also breeds an illegal or sub-standard mining culture, some that even use child labor in underdeveloped countries.
Fiber Optic Installation Impacts the Environment
The installation of fiber optic cables has an impact on the environment, particularly during the construction phase. The installation process typically requires excavation, which can disturb the soil and disrupt local ecosystems. In addition, fiber optic cables may need to be installed underground or on utility poles, which may require the removal of trees or other vegetation.
Is Fiber the Best Choice?
Obviously, creating and installing fiber optic cable certainly has a downside. The mining needed to produce the ongoing demand for fiber cables exacts a terrible environmental cost, as well as helps feed numerous nefarious labor and economic practices. Does its importance to our modern society outweigh these negative impacts? Everyone must decide for themselves, as the fiber industry is not going away anytime soon. Perhaps other viable alternatives pose a better option with equal or better data transmission benefits and less impact on the environment.
MHO Fixed Wireless Internet and Networking solutions result in considerably less impact on the environment than traditional fiber installations. With equivalent speeds and reliability, faster installations, and superior customer service, it’s worth a closer look.
Contact MHO today to investigate the viability of fixed wireless Internet for businesses in your area.