In 2008, designer Thomas Thwaites decided to build a toaster from scratch-and not the "from scratch" that would land him in Home Depot for a couple of hours. He was interested in the seemingly magical process that turns what we pull out of the earth into the stuff that litters our houses. So Thwaites decided to take on the toaster, and what followed was an adventure that illuminated just how far removed our everyday items are from the raw materials that go into them.
Step 1: Thwaites bought a toaster for £3.99—the cheapest he could find—assuming that it would have the simplest guts to peruse and reverse engineer. But when he brought it home and unscrewed all the bits, he found 400 parts made of over 100 different materials. Finding every material would have extended his roughly nine month project into a life long one, so Thwaites made his first (of many) compromises. He would ignore most of the materials before him and instead focus on just five: steel, mica, plastic, copper and nickel. None spring from the ground as easy to assemble toaster parts.
Steel is made from iron, and iron mining no longer takes place in the UK, where Thwaites is from, because the industry can't match the scale of operations elsewhere. China, for instance, pulled up 900 billion tons of crude iron ore in 2010, and Australia and Brazil weighed in with 420 and 370 billion tons of usable ore respectively. Without any active iron mines in the country, Thwaites visited a shuttered one turned tourist attraction. The facility's owner was kind enough to allow the designer to haul a suitcase full of iron ore back on the train to London-his own makeshift conveyor belt to a home-made processing plant.
Once back, he had to figure out how to get the iron out. In commercial operations surface mining is used to get the stuff and then blast furnaces separate out the metal. Modern ones can funnel steel-making plants 10,000 tons of liquid iron per day-but again, the industrial-scale equipment was of no use for an urban pebble collection. "The smaller the scale you want to work on," explained Thwaites in his 2010 TED talk, "the further back in time you have to go." Thwaites found a toaster-appropriate furnace blueprint in a western metallurgy text—the first—published in the 1500s. Unfortunately, a modern day approximation using a trashcan, leaf blower, and some hair dryers just left Thwaites with black lump that was definitely not iron. He did, though, get a decent video out of it.
So Thwaites set aside his centuries-old instruction manual and instead dug up tales of modern experimentation via an online patent search. There he pulled up an industrial smelter design that called for microwaves, and miniaturized it. After one household microwave was forced into retirement by too much recipe riffing, a second was coaxed into producing a single coin-sized iron disk. One down, four to go.
Next up: Copper. Seventy percent of the world's known copper reserves reside in seven countries: Chile, the United States, Russia, Congo, Peru, Zambia, and Mexico. Open pit (exactly what it sounds like) or underground mining (think tunnels snaking 3000 feet below ground) are used in massive operations to pull up ore. Processing goes like this: To get the material to 20- or 30-percent copper, the ore is crushed and the stuff you want is separated from the waste rock. Leaching or smelting takes out the iron or sulfur present, and then refining filters out the last of the impurities. It's a big process, but Thwaites came up with a brilliant workaround. Led by a geology professor, he ventured down into a copper mine in Wales—formerly known as the largest in the world—and picked up several big jugs of acidic mine water. In that water was enough conductive material to cast the pins of his plug. A little home brewed electrolysis later, and Thwaites had himself the bones of something that could fit in a socket.
Scotland provided Thwaites with the mica he needed. In fact, he just chipped some off of a mountain, perhaps a necessary soft ball after dealing with blast furnaces and acid. The mica would serve as electrical insulation.
Plastic was a little trickier, but, Thwaites says, "It's the defining feature of cheap electrical goods." Since plastic is made from oil, Thwaites got on the phone with BP and attempted to convince them to fly him out to an oilrig on their dime. After one conversation, BP stopped returning his phone calls. But Thwaites knew plastic could be made out of other things—potato starch being one of them. The task had a promising start, but went awry when snails pillaged the toaster mold caked in potato over night. "Out of desperation," says Thwaites, "I decided that I could think laterally."
The world produces something like 260 million tons of plastic annually, up from 1.5 million tons in 1950. Half of that goes to lightweight, single use plastic products and packaging containers that are inefficient to recycle and largely nonbiodegradible. Geologists of the future, Thwaites thought, would look back and see layers of synthetic polymers embedded in the rock. So he figured he could mine plastic from his own home, melting it and then pouring it over his hand-chipped mold made from a tree trunk.
Amazingly, it worked. Kind of. He was able to boil down, he says, "the massive industrial activity devoted to making objects which enable us, the consumer, to toast bread more efficiently." In the end he put together a haggard-looking stripped-down version of something we can buy for the price of a sandwich. It only took him nine months, several trips across country lines, and a many moments of lateral thinking.
He did plug it in once, but because he wasn't able to make insulation for the wires, the toaster started melting itself about 5 seconds in. Thwaites considers it a partial success.
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco