Sources and Geographical Origins

Sources and Geographical Origins

The raw materials which make up products all have to be processed before the can be sent to a factory. It is important for a designer to be aware of the lifecycle of materials to help make choices about the environmental background and choosing properties best suited to your design.

Paper and boards:

Sources and Geographical Origins, figure 1

Trees are chipped into small pieces and mixed with chemicals to make pulp. Pulping breaks the wood down into thin fibres which is then bleached white and fed through rollers into sheets. Other materials can also be pulped such as bamboo and grasses, or recycled paper which is re-pulped and rolled again. Unbleached pulp keeps the wood colour and is often used as card.

Pulp, paper and cardboard are mainly produced in China, Japan and the USA as they can source, transport and mass produce cheaply. Eastern Asia produces rice paper from a rice paper plant which grows in swampy areas.

Timber based material:

Trees are felled and bark removed, it is then cut into planks and seasoned. Seasoning dries wood out with air or a carefully controlled kiln. Seasoning improves the strength of timber and its ability to withstand rot. Good quality soft and hard wood such as pine, ash and oak will then be worked into standard planks and moulding for building and furniture production. Other timber is processed into board.

  • Chipboard is wood chips and sawdust compacted together with glue and formed into sheets.

  • MDF is processed into pulp in the same way as cardboard, it’s flattened and dried.

  • Plywood is thin layers of timber cut and glued together at 90 degrees, this makes if strong and rigid.

The Alpine forests have the best climate for fast growing softwoods such as pine, cedar and larch. European forests produce big hardwood trees such as oak, birch, beech and ash. Expensive hardwoods like mahogany come from rainforests such as the Amazon.

Metal based materials:

Sources and Geographical Origins, figure 2

Metal ore is mined from the ground in rock form. The rocks have to be heated either in a furnace or by passing an electrical current through it. This melts the metal out of the ore. This first separation still has some impurities in the metal so it is then refined either in a furnace or by electrolysis. The pure metal is then cast into the required shapes and cooled.

Iron ore is mostly mined in the USA, Russia and Sweden. China is the biggest producer of steel and the USA, France and Australia mine bauxite for producing aluminium. Copper mines are most prolific in the USA, Chile, Zambia and Russia whilst Indonesia and China are the biggest manufacturers of tin.


Plastics (polymers) come from crude oil. The oil is mined from underground and then refined in a process called fractional distillation separating the oil into chemicals called fractions. These fractions can be split into monomers, when monomers or joined together by chemicals they become polymers – polymerisation. Some fractions are too big to be joined so are heated in a process called cracking, this makes them small enough to be polymerised. Once polymers are chemically formed they can be moulded.

Crude oil is drilled from massive wells underground in Russia, UAE and Saudi Arabia, it is then refined into polymers.

Textiles based materials:

Sources and Geographical Origins, figure 3

Natural fibres come from animals or plants, their fibres are short and hairy (called staple fibres) making them easy to spin into a thread. Examples of natural fibres are wool, cotton and silk. Natural fibres are harvested, cleaned and spun.

Synthetic fibres are polymer based so originate from crude oil. The polymer is melted and forced through a tiny hole. This gives a smooth, continuous length called a filament. It is then woven or knitted in the same way as natural fibres. Examples include nylon, polyester and elastane.

Regenerated fibres are natural fibres which are treated with chemicals and forced through a tiny hole to make a filament. Viscose is made from wood pulp mixed with sodium hydroxide.

Cotton is grown and processed mainly in China, the USA, India and Pakistan. China, India and Uzbekistan have the right climate to grow mulberry trees which the worms for silk production live on. Russia, the Ukraine, France, Canada and Belgium grow flax to make linen. Australia, UK, USA, China and New Zealand have sheep farms to produce wool. European Alpine areas produce the fast growing trees used to make cellulose and wood pulp. Lyocell uses hardwood wood pulp from European forests. Crude oil from Russia, UAE and Saudi Arabia is refined to make polymer based fabrics such as acrylic, polyester and nylon.


Components used in electronic products have a variety of origins. Polymers and plastics are refined from crude oil mined in Russia, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Silicon is found in Russia and the USA whilst gold is mined in China, Australia and Russia. Copper can be mined in Chile, China and Peru and lithium in Australia, Chile and Argentina. Bauxite is made into aluminium in China, Russia and Canada. Rare Earth Elements (REE) which are used in magnets, batteries and cell phones are mined in China, Australia and the USA. Nickel for use in magnets and batteries comes from the Philippines, Indonesia, Russia, Canada and Australia.