What are Artificial Substances?

If something is artificial, it doesn’t occur naturally in the world around us. You might have also heard the words fake. These all mean the same thing: humans must have created it.

Maybe it’s built in a factory or a workshop or transformed from a liquid into a solid inside a big refinery. Either way, you’re not going to find something artificial out in a forest or the middle of the ocean – not unless it was put there by other people.

Usually, when someone says something is artificial, they are talking about the substances and resources we use to create everything around us, from our cars and computers to our houses and furniture. Resources are things that humans use to survive and thrive on the planet.

Some things are made from natural resources, like chairs made from wood. Other things, like our electronics, phones, and tablets, are made using mostly manufactured resources. For example, the screens are glass and often have colorful plastic covers.

You won’t find artificial substances out in the world. They can’t be mined or farmed and don’t grow on trees. So how on earth do we make them?

The differences between artificial and natural resources

You can find a natural resource in the world, even if it’s somewhere no people have ever lived. Think of things that can be farmed, collected, or harvested from animals. There are also rocks and minerals formed over millions and billions of years. Fortunately, many natural resources, like crops and trees, grow faster than that. It’s hard to run out of those!

A manufactured substance is created from natural resources. You put them through a chemical reaction and transform them into something new. This reaction could melt them using extremely hot temperatures, mixing in other substances, or both! Generally speaking, you won’t be able to turn an artificial material back into what it was before.

For example, oil is a natural resource. It exists deep underground; we can’t just create our own – we must find it. Then, we can take the oil we collect to a refinery. Then, we can add heat, chemicals, and other ingredients to turn it into plastic, an artificial substance.

Examples of Natural Resources

Most things you can find in nature are natural resources, from the plants in the garden to the water in the ocean. Here are just a few examples of them to get you started:

  • Wood – Trees are a part of nature, and the wood that makes tables and chairs comes from those trees. We harvest it from the trunk or branches, which grow without us interfering. We’ve used wood as building materials and fuel for campfires for hundreds of thousands of years.
  • Sand – Rocks wear away because of the wind and waves battering against them. When this happens, lots of little pieces of gritty material come off. Sand occurs naturally in the environment, though we also use it to produce manufactured materials like glass. Nobody’s making billions of grains of sand to fill our beaches and deserts!
  • Wool – The fluffy stuff that you get from shearing sheep? Yes, that’s a natural resource! It grows back over time, so we can farm sheep to harvest it every year. Wool is not treated with chemicals, though you can spin it into yarn. Eventually, it ends up as things like cozy jumpers and woolen socks.
  • Coal – Coal is a black underground rock that can be burned for heat or electricity. It can be used immediately without any chemical treatment, which makes it a natural resource. However, the amount of coal in the world is finite, and it would take millions of years to make more of it.

You might have noticed that in the example of coal, we might run out of it at some point. This is because some natural resources are non-renewable. Once we run out, that’s it. The opposite of this is renewable, when we can replenish that resource through farming or replanting, but we still have to wait for them to grow. From the above list, wood and wool are both renewable.

Examples of Man-made Substances

Now that you’ve seen some examples of natural resources let’s find out how they compare with the following list of artificial substances – things that do not occur naturally but are no less important to our lives.

  • Glass – To make glass, silica from sand is melted down with other products at extremely high heat, fusing them so they can’t disappear again. It’s used in windows, bottles, and glasses (the type you drink out of and the ones you put on your face!)
  • Plastic – When people think of artificial materials, plastic is usually the first to come to mind. Plastic comes from oil, a natural resource. It’s a tough, durable substance used in everything from drinking straws to water bottles. Unfortunately, it’s so tough that it isn’t biodegradable. As a result, it’ll stay in the environment for many years, causing pollution.
  • Polyester – Unlike cotton or wool, some materials used to make our clothes are manufactured. Polyester is a plastic type that feels soft as silk and can be sewn into different shapes. Other artificial fabrics include nylon and rayon.
  • Paper – Yes, all the paper in your notebooks and jotters is manufactured! Paper comes from trees, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a natural resource. Wood pulp is chemically-treated and flattened out to make it. The chemicals used in this process make the paper an artificial material.

Remember that when it comes to natural substances, we can change them to suit our needs, but we cannot produce them. On the other hand, manufactured substances have to be made by us to even exist in the first place.

Are there substances that can be both artificial and natural?

Yes! Some resources are both natural and manufactured. Or at least, there are some which have artificial alternatives. They’re more common than you might think.

Let’s take the example of diamonds. For a long time, diamonds were an exclusively-natural resource. This is because the conditions required to make them were impossible to replicate. They formed billions of years ago, deep in the earth’s crust, when heat and pressure turned bits of coal into these sparkling stones! People had to dig deep in the world to find just a handful of them, but even then, it wasn’t guaranteed that they would find any. They were valuable because of their appearance and because diamond is the hardest natural substance known to man. This made them a luxury worth their weight in gold.

Like many other precious gemstones, diamonds were found in the hands of the wealthy because they were the only people who could afford them. However, diamond rings, a symbol of love and marriage, cost a lot of money. Depending on the size of the diamond and how much you earned, it would take weeks or years of wages to save up enough to buy one.

Nowadays, there is an alternative to buying a natural diamond. It took a long time, but scientists discovered a way to put coal under the same conditions three billion years ago. They managed the impossible: creating diamonds in a lab.

These artificial diamonds look identical to natural diamonds. They’re just as hard and just as shiny. But, making a manufactured alternative to this natural resource makes it cheaper and more accessible. And there’s no risk of running out of diamonds anytime soon!

Why is it important to know if something is artificial?

The difference between manufactured and natural resources is deeply connected to environmental issues. Describing objects using these terms is the first step to understanding their origins. It’ll also help you make value judgments about how good they are for the planet.

Some artificial substances like plastic cause ocean pollution because they won’t go away alone. Natural resources are a part of the ecosystem, so they’ll be eaten by animals or broken down by bacteria and fungi.

That’s not to say that all manufactured substances are bad for the environment. For example, paper is biodegradable, so using a paper bag for grocery shopping is much better than a plastic bag. However, it’s important to find out what materials are safe for animals and waterways, whether natural or artificial.

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