Could a civilization generate electricity without metalworking? [duplicate]

On a world that had no oxygen (and thus is very unhelpful to would be metalworkers who require fire), could the natives find a way to use magnets to generate electricity? If so, to what extent? Is there some other way to form magnets capable of producing meaningful electricity other than with fire-based smithing, or perhaps a mostly-believable biological or other method?

• Metalworking does not require fire, it's just helpful. – Cort Ammon Mar 27 '18 at 1:20
• Are you asking about AC electricity or DC electricity? And is simply pounding a malleable metal (i.e. lithium) with a rock ok? We can get electricity from fruits, yes? What do you want to do with the electricity? Electric eels produce significant amounts of electricity. Again, for what purpose is the electricity? Most uses need some sort of metal it would seem. – Tracy Cramer Mar 27 '18 at 1:25
• Nor does fire require oxygen. All it needs are chemicals that have fast exothermic reactions. So you could perhaps (check the Chemistry site for accurate details) have say chlorine burning in a hydrogen atmosphere, producing HCl as an end product. – jamesqf Mar 27 '18 at 4:18
• You cannot have at the same time a world where fire doesn't burn and native inhabitants of that world. Metabolism is of the same nature as fire, it just burns slower. – AlexP Mar 27 '18 at 11:23
• Why do you need electricity again? – nzaman Mar 27 '18 at 12:34

To paraphrase a famous statement from The Graduate,

I have one word for you, just one word... batteries...

Chemical reactions aren't the most cost-effective way to create electricity, but we use them all the time. We also deal with a special class of non-metal materials that conduct electricity. They're called semiconductors.

However, this does not mean you're going to have a civilization filled with the glowing warmth of electric light and the easy listening of Motown soul. Without a good conductor, the potential of electricity (haha, an EE joke there. Did you notice?) is quite low. I doubt you could arc-weld without metal conductors.

But...

Without plentiful oxygen there's a whole lot of things you can't do, like transportation (combustion), wastewater treatment, rocketry of pretty much any kind, plastics, acids (and a whole heck of a lot of other chemicals), and (not to make too fine a point) water.

No oxygen kinda means no photosynthesis, which begs the question, what kind of plants do you have? It makes for aerobic water (aka, life in rivers and lakes), so without it you're not fishing. In fact, insofar as we understand life, no oxygen == no life.

So, while electricity may be your main interest, it isn't actually your biggest problem. No oxygen is a bad thing.

• Welding doesn't requite oxygen. (Unless you're using an oxy-acetylene torch, and that doesn't use atmospheric oxygen. In fact, it will work under water.) Atmospheric oxygen can be very detrimental to welding many materials, such as aluminium. They're welded using inert gasses to protect the hot metal from atmospheric oxygen. – jamesqf Mar 27 '18 at 4:24
• Aaaah! You're right. I had acetylene welding on the brain. I'll change the answer immediately. Thanks @jamesqf! – JBH Mar 27 '18 at 4:32
• great answer except for the no oxygen = no life... that's wrong, most of our oxygen we have now came because of life. – Kilisi Mar 27 '18 at 9:02
• Just because our plants use oxygen as a byproduct when producing carbohydrates doesn't mean some other evolutionary path couldn't use chlorine and some halogen based polymer instead. Evolution works with what it has, and if no $O_2$ is available, it'll use $Cl_2$ or $N_2$ in a pinch – nzaman Mar 27 '18 at 12:39

If the goal is simply to produce electricity, then yes. You produce electricity without metal all the time in the form of static discharge. Rubbing two pieces of fur together or a piece of amber and a piece of fur together produce fairly impressive amounts of static electricity. As a matter of fact, peoples in the classical period observed electrostatic effects by rubbing cats with amber rods. In the 1600's when a chemist named William Gilbert first gave a scientific name to the phenomena he coined the term "electricus" which is Latin for "like amber" or "from amber," based on the greek term "elektron" which simply meant amber.

However, I get the feeling you are more looking for some sort of civilization that has harnessed electricity for useful purposes. I am sorry but there is no way to do so without possessing a firm grasp of metallurgy and metalworking.

• Couldn't you just industrialize cat rubbing? – Thorne Mar 27 '18 at 2:58
• @Thorne I think you're on to something big here! Obviously, such a system of electric lighting as is possible with amber rubbed cats is only for the wealthiest citizens! After all, who else can afford to keep a myriade of cats and five thousand amber rod wielding slaves in their household, constantly causing the cats to spark and thus provide tiny atoms of light in the otherwise duskdarkened hall? Not to mention how noisy the proposition must be: thousands of sparks crackling each second, plus the din of ten thousand purring cats! – elemtilas Mar 27 '18 at 3:11
• Of course, both fur and amber contain oxygen, which is apparently absent on OP's world. – Samuel Mar 27 '18 at 3:52
• well shoot, I guess there goes my amber and cat strokery emporium idea. – TCAT117 Mar 27 '18 at 3:58