On earth, all sorts of machines require heavy oils and lubricants in order to function correctly, be it bearing grease, engine oil, transmission fluid or hydraulic oil, the majority of which are produced from heavy petroleum fractions.

Most plastics, such as polyethylene, ABS, or PVC, are synthesized from materials that ultimately come from petroleum. Even when gasoline is no longer being burned for energy, oil and plastics are still needed.

While it's possible to synthesize fundamentally the same products from more basic raw materials, it's a lot more expensive to do it that way (although this is at least partially due to the way the demand for gasoline and diesel help subsidize the cost of fractions that might otherwise be unusable.)

If crude petroleum isn't available though, such as when colonizing a planet or mining asteroids in space, how would this be dealt with?

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    $\begingroup$ Fischer-–Tropsch process. Start with carbon and hydrogen and synthesize up. Used on a large scale by Germany in WW2 and by South Africa during the second half of the 20th century. I hope there is no need to explain why they had no access to petroleum and had to synthesize their liquid fuels the hard way. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 9, 2018 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ Hydrocarbons are formed outside of Earth. Titan is a good example. Once you have liquid hydrocarbons from the surface getting other oils is a bit easier. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Mar 9, 2018 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ Worth noting: hydrocarbons are less popular in space. They outgas and become brittle. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 9, 2018 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Not all greases are petrol based either... silicone grease or white lithium grease for example. $\endgroup$
    – ivanivan
    Mar 10, 2018 at 1:26
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    $\begingroup$ You know Titan is the solar systems oil bucket. Venus also probably has some and Mars could to, we just don't know since nobody lives there. $\endgroup$
    – skout
    Mar 10, 2018 at 2:13

6 Answers 6


You would use tholins tholins https://nai.nasa.gov/annual-reports/2013/jpl-titan/task-341-nuclear-magnetic-resonance-spectroscopy-studies-of-titan-organic-analogues-analytical-potential/

Tholins (after the Greek θολός (tholós) "hazy" or "muddy"; from the ancient Greek word meaning "sepia ink") are a wide variety of organic compounds formed by solar ultraviolet irradiation or cosmic rays from simple carbon-containing compounds such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) or ethane (C2H6), often in combination with nitrogen (N2). Tholins do not form naturally on modern-day Earth, but they are found in great abundance on the surface of icy bodies in the outer Solar System, and as reddish aerosols in the atmosphere of outer Solar System planets and moons.

Tholins are complex hydrocarbons which could serve as industrial feedstock as well as (or better than) terrestrial petrochemicals. Better because petrochemicals have a large proportion of extremely long high molecular weight "asphaltenes" which complicated the handling of petrochemicals. Tholins, being formed under conditions of much lower concentration, would not have that cumbersome high MW component.

Tholins would not be available in deep space, but nothing is available in deep space. Pretty much anywhere else that there is not an abundance of oxygen your tholins will be there for the collecting.


If crude petroleum isn't available though, such as when colonizing a planet or mining asteroids in space, how would this be dealt with?

When you go doing these things, you are supposed to take your fuel and cargo along with you.

If you want to know about having a sustainable industry for materials and fuels, though, you just go for the alternatives.

You can mine asteroids for ice. With something to separate oxygen from hydrogen and a power source (such as solar panels, or RTG's), you will be producing your own fuel and oxydizer.

As for colonies, not all plastics come from petroleum. An economy based on these and tech inovation can make bioplastics become cheaper than regular plastic.

Remember that humanity did not have petroleum for most of its history, and it never stopped us from exploring and spreading around. Petroleum is just one resource that we are using now. Someday it should be replaced by other resources. Even if we still end up using some, it will not be the most used source for cheap material and fuel - just like wood ceased being fuel and vehicle building material at some point too.


Grow plants. You have to do this for oxygen and food anyway, so you can use the inedible parts for plastics, lubricants, and so on. E.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic http://www.besustainablemagazine.com/cms2/bio-based-lubricants-from-vegetable-oils/


Polyethylene is comprised of the chemical formula C2H4. It's made from hydrocarbons on earth because thats the most common way to refine them.


There's plenty of carbon and hydrogen in space. The question is what will you use to refine it to produce usable chemicals and materials for your space exploration.

Not all lubricants are based on hydrocarbons. As an example, I am a big fan of high temperature lithium grease.

Good luck with your space factory.


A Fun Side Effect of Fusion Energy is Infinite Hydrocarbon compounds

Hydrocarbons (oil) can be chemically produced from well... hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen molecules. Its just really REALLY energy intensive to the point of being ludicrous at the moment. If you have reliable and mature fusion reactors you basically have so much surplus energy that you quickly have the problem of trying to find out ways to get rid of it. In a post-fusion energy economy energy becomes so cheap that you can now economically perform actions that formerly were scientifically possible but economically infeasible. We're talking transmuting lead or bismuth into gold with particle accelerators, mass-manufacturing diamonds from carbon, and even synthesizing hydrocarbons (oil) from base elements. So to answer your question, all your space oil production needs is hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon (some of the most common elements in the universe) and a reasonably sized fusion reactor powering a refinery where energy intensive processes that would have bankrupt entire nations prior to the advent of fusion energy now take place 24/7 for pennies on the dollar.


Chemical compounds that should be usable as feedstocks for making plastics, lubricants and so on are available in the asteroid belt. Samples arrive on Earth on the form of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. These contain significant amounts of water as well as a wide variety of organic compounds.

These will need different processing to petroleum, but you would need to redesign your chemical factories to operate in space anyway. The efficient way to set up chemical industry in space would be to find the asteroids that are the parent bodies for carbonaceous chondrites, and put the factories there.


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