View Full Version : World Builders Disease

01-13-2012, 02:55 AM
One of the things I really enjoy doing is building fantasy worlds, and I've thought of one that I really don't have the breadth of knowledge to build by myself, so I thought I'd toss it out to you guys and see what you come up with.

I'm looking at a world with no fossil fuels, and very limited coal. What are the limits of technology in such a world?

I have a few ideas, but I don't want to start anyone who is interested with my preconceptions.

01-13-2012, 12:59 PM
For a start, very limited coal = not much Coke (smithing, not the drug lol) = Steel would be very limited, iron would be present, as you could use cut wood to make charcoal.

Can'tthink of anything else at the moment.

01-13-2012, 03:49 PM
No fossil fuels means no crude oil, which means no plastics.

01-13-2012, 05:45 PM
Windmills and watermills would be widely used as they can work with wood and stone.
Charcoal burners would be clustered around smithies, stoves would probably be clay instead of iron as it'd be more easily available and cheaper to work.
Few stone buildings really, as you need really need metal to cut stone, more clay brick/adobe/wood instead.
Take a look at the aztecs maybe, they had few fossil fuel resources as I recall and tended more to huge amounts of slave labour for construction and sharp stones for weapons.

01-13-2012, 07:57 PM
I'm building a large island with unstable time that has no fossil fuels. The best they have is shale oil.

I structured the geology to include a lot of clay. A hell of a lot of clay. They never invented the barrel as they have an Ancient Greek-esque system of pots, and bricks are a common building material. Other than that, wind and water power as said, and lots of small metal experimentation to try and enhance iron.

01-13-2012, 09:59 PM
For fuel, instead of oil, various kinds of alcohol would be used.

For reference, maybe look at the Ringworld series by Larry Niven, the cultures on the ringworld have no fossil fuels and very limited access to the builders tech.

01-13-2012, 10:57 PM
There's a marvelous scifi novel where the protagonist race faces this kind of obstacle. I will think hard on it and get back to this thread....(No, besides Ringworld...)

01-13-2012, 11:27 PM
Hmm, seems to me on a world with no fossil fuels or coal that ANY sort of metal refining would be uncommon, not just iron. Cast iron would probably be just about the limit of iron working.

Alcohol as a fuel seems like a workable idea, but without a real metals industry to build a still, alcohol will probably be limited to relatively low proof beers and wines. It might be possible to build a working still from clay, but they would be huge, fragile things. Pure ethanol would probably be a rather pricey luxury. I don't know what the minimum proof is for alcohol to make it a viable fuel.

Vegetable oils and fats are quite likely to be used as fuel as well, either alone or conjunction with wood or charcoal. Animal fats might also be used. There are vegetable and animal fats that need very little processing to be usable. Olive oil comes to mind, as well as tallow (which is just rendered animal fat). A plastics industry is possible with the use of vegetable based oils, though considering the processes used to manufacture bioplastics I'm not sure that a culture lacking the sort of infrastructure advanced metallurgy makes possible could deveop it.

Hmm, on further consideration, it MIGHT be possible to use plant and animal based fuels to develop advanced metallurgy. I don't know if a suffeciently hot fire can be sustained with them, though, to actually be able to smelt steel or other alloys. That is a consideration, however. I can just picture it, a rather small city surrounded by miles and miles of olive groves...

Building styles would be heavily affected, as most people would be limited to bricks, adobe, or wood. Stone buildings ARE possible, but would be very rare and costly, and usually limited to softer stones such as marble, sandstone, limestone and shale. Stone buildings would probably tend to be the tallest structures around, and even those would probably not exceed 10 storeys or so (not just strength of materials, but availability to consider here). Concrete would also be a relatively common building material. We, as a species, have known how to make concrete since before we learned how to work iron.

01-14-2012, 12:31 AM
Dried animal dung can also be used for fuel. Also peat, dug out of the ground. So it doesn't have to be oil. Not sure how hot fires made from those can burn, though.

Speaking of digging, if you can't do a lot of metal working, your tools are going to be made of wood or stone. Small utensils such as eating implements, for ex., would probably be carved out of wood or bone, but of course you need something sharp to do this. If metal is costly, only wealthy people would own much of it, and people who work with metal would likely be held in high esteem.

How you cook affects the kind of food you eat, and how it tastes. If fuel is costly, you might dry your meats, fish, fruits and veggies instead of cooking them.

01-14-2012, 01:49 AM
Depending on natural resourses copper, tin, bronze, silver, gold, and lead could be worked. The "empire" triliogy by janny wurtz and ray feist showed that laminted wood and paper could be used to make utensils and weapons.

01-14-2012, 01:51 AM
hm. This world did just fine through the bronze and into the iron age without coal or plastics. So smelted and hammered copper, bronze, iron are plausible. Ceramics tends to use charcoal and wood, but porcelain needs a bit zippier heat, though the chinese did manage with a dragon kiln and wood and charcoal.

You could make a still out of copper and bronze, though glass needs a bit higher heat to melt the frit, and a fairly consistant high heat in the glory hole for blowing and reheating purposes. Sheet glass used to be made from blown dcut and flattened, modern sheet glass is floated on melted tin so that is right out.

Much of the industrial practices call for finer temperature control inherent in gas, or higher temperatures found with coal.

[and a form of plastic can be made with latex from plants. IIRC da Vinci made a lettuce based plastic back in the 1500s. Let me see if I can find the reference right off. ] Can't find the book with the reference however lac when done properly looks pretty much just like plastic, acts more or less like plastic, and when [ainted on bamboo comes out looking just like plastic [which is why I pitched a fit when someone decided to nuke an antique lacquerware japanese soup bowl with lid, because 'it looks just like all the plastic ones at the japanese restaurant':rolleyes: Needless to say, any time I now have any sort of roomie or visitor I lock away the antiques in my damned house,]

01-14-2012, 07:13 AM
Concrete, yes, but not reinforced concrete. Without steel rebar, concrete has some very specific limitations.

You can build Roman structures, but not modern skyscrapers, with non-reinforced concrete. And even the Roman structures, there's a particular chemical in the ashes and rocks Vesuvius spits out that makes Roman concrete unusually strong & durable. I forget what it is, though. :(

01-14-2012, 09:08 AM
Are you talking traditional fantasy (like medieval) or more modern? Because if the latter, or even futuristic, you might be able to swing solar power. Maybe a scientist had a breakthrough using wiring and clay with glass.

01-14-2012, 03:11 PM
And even the Roman structures, there's a particular chemical in the ashes and rocks Vesuvius spits out that makes Roman concrete unusually strong & durable. I forget what it is, though. :(

Pozzolana, which is basically extremely finely divided silicon dioxide. Still used, except now they use "fly ash" captured from stack scrubbers on coal-burning power plants.

The reaction between silicon dioxide and calcium hydroxide (Romans used burned oyster shells, modern times it's released by the reaction between portland cement and water) is slow, but the end product is stronger than the concrete made with portland cement.

01-15-2012, 01:28 PM
hm. This world did just fine through the bronze and into the iron age without coal or plastics.]

We've used coal since about the Bronze Age, if not slightly earlier, Albeit it wasn't mined till later, but still used and seemingly plentiful enough for it to be used on funeral pyres.