Browsing through the blogs on data visualization and infographics (check my blogroll) I often find inspiration in Nels’ MFA diagrams. From time to time I like to beef up the skinny MFA diagram skeletons a bit by converting them into Sankey diagrams. At the same time, by translating the numbers into Sankey arrows one gets a better idea what the main (mass) flows are.

This is a MFA diagram on Iron and Steel Flows in the European Union in 2000 as found in this post. Original data is from a 2008 OECD study, flows in Mt.

The description of the diagram says: “A study of iron and steel flows in 2000 in the European Union showed that an input of about 120 Mt of iron ore (of which 98 Mt was imported) yielded 98 Mt of primary crude steel (i.e. produced directly from iron ore and coke). A further 65 Mt, representing 40% of total crude steel production, were produced as secondary crude steel, produced from scrap steel.”

I did a first quick version of the flows as Sankey diagram, trying to stick very much to the layout of the original diagram. All nodes are the same size and more or less located at the position of the master. It already shows that the main steel flows: iron ore imported into the European Union, and steel scrap being recycled within the EU. Export of semi-finished steel products from the EU to the Rest of World (52 Mt) almost balanced with 47 Mt of semi-finished steel products imported into the EU.

I tried to improve the diagram by removing the three nodes ‘New Scrap’, ‘Prompt Scrap’ and ‘End of Life products’ since there is no transformation of these flows at the nodes (also no change in quantity). Further I reduced the size of some boxes and dragged the ‘Semi-finished Products’ (Rest of World) box closer to the ‘Finished Steel Products’ (European Union) box to avoid crossing streams. Wherever possible I try to avoid diagonal arrows.

The final result also has the Rest of World and European Union grouping. I am not to happy with the colors though.

Your thoughts?

Phosporus in the natural environment and the food chain has been a topic of several posts on my blog. So it didn’t come as a surprise to find yet another diagram on phoshphorus flows over at Nels’s MFA Diagram blog (one of the blogs I follow closely, see blogroll).

MFA diagrams have their focus on the nodes and the build-up of stocks. Sometimes they get a touch of Sankey diagram with the arrows having different magnitudes. The MFA diagram below is for phosphorous flows in China 2008 (original source: Min Qiao, Yuan-Ming Zheng, Yong-Guan Zhu, 2011. Material flow analysis of phosphorus through food consumption in two megacities in northern China). Values are in tonnes.


(click image to enlarge)

We can detect arrows with three different brush widths (my guess is 1px, 2px and 4 px), each standing for a value range into which the actual flow quantity falls. This may, however, bes somewhat misleading when having a quick glance at the diagram.

I quickly “translated” the above diagram to a Sankey diagram with flow values being actually to scale.


(click image to enlarge)

Here it is quite clear where the major phosphorus flows are located (from food production via urban consumption to sewage treatment plant and solid waste disposal: 2923 out of 5374 tons end up here). The other flows are comparatively small, with the phoshporous flow going directly to the aquatic system worth a mention. Two small flows in the center of the diagram are negligible, they are in fact so tiny in comparison to the major flows that they even don’t show up (or just as a hairline) here.

I have therefore added a minimum width of 1 px for small flows so that the annual 17 tons from urban consumption and the 1.9 tons from rural consumption to the solid waste disposal are at least visible (albeit not to scale with the other flows any more).


(click image to enlarge)

Final phosphorous sinks are solid waste disposal (landfill?) and the aquatic system.

You might remember the radial Sankey diagrams “invented” by Visio guy (here). This 3-D version below left me speechless… I hope the guys at junkcharts dedicate a critical evaluation to it….


(view the original diagram here)

This is from EUROFER (The European Confederation of of Iron and Steel Industries) and shows steel flows in fifteen European countries (EUR-15) in million metric tons. Values are for 2004. The grey area is supposed to represent steel accumulated in capital goods (machinery, buildings, …) over a certain life time.

Whooo woah, that’s a merry go round, I feel dizzy already!

A new blog dedicated to Material Flow Analysis (MFA) diagrams is available over at blogspot.

Material Flow Analysis (also refered to as Material Flow Accounting) is a research topic that focuses on specific substances or material flows on a macro level. Typically the system boundaries are a region or a country. Urban metabolism studies also use MFA diagrams. A key feature is the representation of stocks (storage or accumulation of material) within the system.

I have previously presented MFA diagram samples here on the blog that have Sankey diagram characteristics (i.e. arrow magnitudes proportional to flow quantities, directional arrows).

Here are two examples of MFA diagrams from the new blog for you to enjoy:


Platinum Flows in Europe. Source: Saurat, M., Bringezu, S., 2008. Platinum Group Metal Flows of Europe, Part 1 (via MFA diagram blog)


Phosphorus Flows. Source: Paul H. Brunner, 2007. MFA of regional lead flows and stocks [t/y] (via MFA diagram blog)

Make sure you visit the MFA diagram blog from time to time (I have put the link in the blogroll on the right), to see new interesting diagrams. I will also try to present some of them here…

A group of graduate students form the Center of Industrial Ecology at Yale University in 2005/2006 researched the material flows on the “Big Island of Hawai’i”. Their research report (which can be found on the website of the Kohala Center) shows two Sankey diagrams, one of which is shown here.

Material Flow Accounting (MFA) “is the study of material flows on a national or regional scale. It is therefore sometimes also referred to as regional, national or economy-wide material flow analysis.” (Wikipedia). MFA is a research field in industrial ecology. As the authors of the report write,

Using an island as a unit of analysis is valuable both to the researcher and to those interested in the sustainability of the island itself. The researcher benefits from the island’s clear boundaries (most often defined by a surrounding water body) and a relative advantage in data collection provided by the fact that borders are monitored. Material flows are therefore relatively easier to understand on islands than in larger, more complex non‐island systems.

I have been posting about the use of Sankey diagrams in MFA before, and with few exceptions (Material Flow Sankey Diagram of Japan), have found that examples of Sankey diagrams for national MFA accounts typically are limited to selected bulk materials (e.g. biomass in Switzerland, gold flows in the U.S.).

Flows in the above Sankey diagram for the island of Hawai’i are in gigagrams (kilotonnes) and refer to the year 2005. Inputs are shown on the left side, and the fate of those inputs can be seen as exits to the right. More than 75% of the material flows are imported from off the island, the majority of these flows (57%) are construction materials. Consequently, road and building construction are the largest net addition to stocks with almost 2,000 kilotonnes.

The Sankey diagram has some minor flaws, regarding scale of the flows. Look for example to the division of the landfilled waste arrow (422 kt) into three almost equal portions, which are supposed to represent 79.3 kt, 125.1 kt and 217.7 kt. Also the width of the volcanic rock input flow (429.7 kt) is about four times the width of the machinery input flow (representing 200.2 kt). Still, I think it is a good Sankey diagram, and I wouldn’t mind joining the research group on their next visit to the islands…

This Sankey diagram was posted as a sample on the e!Sankey Forum. It shows the gold flows in the United States in 1998. The original data is from ‘Flow Studies for Recycling Metal Commodities in the United States’ (edited by Scott F. Sibley. U.S Geological Survey, Reston, VA (2004)). Values are in metric tons of contained gold.

The left part of the diagram shows domestic supply of primary and secondary gold, as well as imports to the U.S., the right part distribution and use of gold. The U.S. is a net gold exporter. 318 metric tons gold bullion went to Fort Knox (presumably) that year. 276 metric tons were fabricated into products, mainly jewelry. At the same time 175 metric tons of new and old gold scrap were recycled. Along with the 282 metric tons out of primary production they are fed back into the production cycle.

The diagram has gold/light brown colored Sankey arrows that go along well with the topic. A text label has been forgotten in the left part.

Gabor Doka pointed me to a publication by the Swiss EPA (Federal Office for the Environment, FOEN). The publication titled “Biogene Güterflüsse der Schweiz 2006″ (‘Flows of biogenic goods in Switzerland in 2006′) features many different Sankey diagrams. “Biogenic goods are defined as goods of biological origin, excluding those of fossil origin”. Data is based on Swiss statistical figures and valid for 2006. Available in German only (Download PDF 7,5 MB).

The overall structure of biomass flows is given in a generic layout and as Sankey diagrams with proportional arrow magnitudes for mass flows (unit is in 1000 tons, based on dry matter) as well as for energy content (in GWh, based on lower heat value of dry matter). These overview diagrams are structured in three columns ‘Production’, ‘Conversion’, and ‘Use/Disposal’. Imports are from top, exports to the bottom. This very clear structure for both mass and energy flows makes the complex diagrams easier to comprehend. These overview Sankey diagrams are available for download as a separate PDF file (still 3,2 MB)

The main diagram is then broken down into individual Sankey diagrams for the different sectors involved, such as plant production (PLB), animal farming (THA), and forestry (WAW) in the production column (orange colored processes), or food industry (LMI) and wood/paper industry (HPI) in the conversion sector (green colored process). Finally, in the use/disposal sector (red colored processes) we find goods consumption (WAK) along with energy generation and waste treatments.

This is the sectoral Sankey diagram for the food industry in Switzerland. We can see that a large part of the biomass for food production is imported, and that most production wastes are fed back into animal farming again. The red boxes are different waste treatments receiving input from the food industry.

The above is the goods consumption section. Main biogenic goods inputs are from food industry and wood/paper industry. The meat input is rather small comparatively. A big chunk of the mass output (namely waste wood and waste paper) feeds back into the wood/paper industry. 472.000 tons ended up in waste incineration that year, some 329.000 tons in waste water.

The Sankey diagrams in the study are interesting to browse and reveal a lot more interesting facts. The stuctured approach with the breakdown into smaller diagrams is very useful. The authors Baier and Baum from ZHAW at Wädenswil have done a great job in compiling this.

“The results of this study will serve as useful decision aids for strategic planning and assessments concerning the potential, use and management of biogenic resources (…) makes it possible to detect quantitative changes that occurred during a given period of time and to reach conclusions concerning the efficiency of measures taken.

Actually this way of visualizing statistical data with directional (from-to) information attached to it could serve as a role model for other national mass and energy accounts, I think.

Uh – this has become my largest post ever :o . But I think this was well worth it and the publication merits it. Your comments appreciated.

Environment Canada in 2001 published a Pollution Prevention Planning Handbook, a 153 page guidance manual on processes and techniques for pollution prevention. Update: The original handbook has been removed. Sucessor pages have been put online, and can be found here.

In appendix B of the handbook materials accounting and mass balances are presented as one technique. The text states that

materials accounting and materials mass balances can be presented in a tabular or diagrammatic format. A Sankey diagram provides one useful method for representing a picture of material flows and balances.

and a sample Sankey diagram is shown.

Although not all quantities of the individual flows are shown, and there is no reference to the unit used, I think this is a fine example of using Sankey diagrams. The mass imbalance at the first process “Presse” (at the very left) is clearly visible. From the neighboring downstream processes you can see that at least 2105 units (to “Trémie”) and 738 units (to “Évaporation”) leave the process, that has inputs of only 2616 units. The diagram was made with S.Draw.