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I know things like bombing the major power plants and things like that could temporarily stop electricity production, but I'm talking about changing the way it works. Like we can no longer use any means of creating electricity. Not even solar. What would have to happen to render all of that inert?

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    $\begingroup$ I am glad you asked this question. I had forgotten how much some TV show had bothered me for this very reason...what was that called...anyways I think the answer to your question is "Nothing that wouldn't also kill all humans." $\endgroup$ – James Mar 2 '15 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @James I believe you're thinking of Revolution in which "the power went out" for the entire world. They eventually revealed that it was due to self-replicating nanites that got out of control and wound up sucking up all the electricity they came in contact with. At least the nanites were sporting and didn't disrupt the electricity in the human body. $\endgroup$ – Thunderforge Mar 2 '15 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ Food for thought, could you re-frame this such that the use of electricity is highly impractical? An arbitrary example (I don't have the physics background to explain this) -- maybe some sort of powerful, frequent (but inconstant) electromagnetic interference makes electrical currents highly unstable/unreliable, causing severe spikes/surges, such that most circuits would be destroyed within seconds..? Point is -- maybe electricity doesn't necessarily need to cease to exist, to make it utterly useless for any practical purpose. $\endgroup$ – Brian Lacy Mar 3 '15 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ Since your brain functions on electricity...and electricity is what holds atoms together...having it stop would be bad. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Mar 4 '15 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Ajschuit Crazy Joe thinks electricity is evil, so it puts up a bunch of solar EMP satellites (that have shielding so they don't hurt themselves/each other.) Now that missiles can't be aimed, there is not getting rid of Crazy Joe's satellites, (unless a plucky band of misfits figures out a way.) $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Apr 11 '15 at 19:32
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The other answers have, I think, clearly demonstrated why it's a bad idea to mess with physics and make this literally impossible. It's not a user friendly system — you try to turn off electricity globally and all your humans drop dead, which makes for a tough story.

Instead, what you should do is keep all the physics the same, but introduce some sort of outside effect that makes it impossible to use that electricity.

Here's a few possibilities for this:

  1. Grey Goo — nanotech designed to eat certain metals, destroying most of our ability to transmit electricity, and lots of our ability to generate it. A limiting factor would be that the goo needs active energy generation to power the replication/eating process, so if you have static metal it gets left alone. So swords/guns are ok, power lines are not.
  2. Green Goo — same as above, but instead of mechanical nanotech, some sort of evolved super-lichen or mold.
  3. Alien intervention — for some reason they're here and they don't want us making electricity. Anyone generating usable electrical power for more than a few seconds gets a rock to the head from space.
  4. Magnetic/Solar interference — I am not 100% sure on this one, but I think that it's possible that if there was a ton of constant solar activity, or if the earth's magnetosphere went crazy, that most traditional electrical uses would be curtailed. This does allow for shielded (underground?) or hardened electrical use, but it would be very limited and the shelf life would be reduced — you'd see things like components burning out early, for example.
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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the Grey Goo answer. I was going to mention that in an answer. SPOILER ALERT: The TV series Revolution, even with its stale acting and cheesy subplots, uses this premise. $\endgroup$ – Seth Mar 2 '15 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ With Grey Goo, what keeps people from isolating a wire with a very thick rubber casing to keep the nanites from detecting the current? $\endgroup$ – Eejin Mar 2 '15 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ You can protect most of the wire that way, but what about the actual device that's using it, or the generator/plug? There's always going to be an endpoint for the nanos to get in, you can't surround the entire thing with rubber/plastic. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 2 '15 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ The magnetic pulse is actually great. It is extremely difficult to build electronics in that environment, unless you are inside a Faraday cage (and if you take them out, they get fried instantly). $\endgroup$ – Davidmh Mar 2 '15 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Davidmh EMP can occur naturally, and longer period EMP is particularly disruptive to electric transmission lines. Best of all, life is fairly immune to it. biology.stackexchange.com/q/23817/9036 $\endgroup$ – Level River St Mar 2 '15 at 23:27
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What would have to happen to render all of that inert?

Heat death of the universe?

Seriously, electricity is just electrons moving along atoms. Preventing that would likely change the chemical properties of... everything. Something as elemental as fire would probably not work right since the oxidation involves sharing of electrons between the oxygen and whatever's burning (with energy release as a side effect).

The heat death of the universe means there's no entropy difference to move the electrons, they just sit there. But it's also an exceptionally boring universe to write about.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I was kind of hoping for something that would allow people to keep living... $\endgroup$ – Ajschuit Mar 2 '15 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Ajschuit - since electricity is what drives our ability to think, move, have a literal pulse, it seems doubtful. $\endgroup$ – Telastyn Mar 2 '15 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Ajschuit unfortunately, the more fundamental you get, the more susceptible life as we know it becomes is to its adjustment. There are constants which, if shifted by just a few fractions of a percent, could prevent humans from living. Now there are theories that suggest that, even in such environments, life can form. However, as a worldbuilder, we have to recognize that many such worlds would be inaccessible to our reader's minds. There are many reasons for why sci-fi species are curiously bipedal and have faces. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Mar 2 '15 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ Heat death doesn't happen. It's just an obsolete theory when people thought entropy law was a real thing and not just a statistical "law". $\endgroup$ – Bakuriu Mar 2 '15 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Telastyn I don't agree with your premise. I could imagine seeing Heat Death of the Universe VIII. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Apr 11 '15 at 19:28
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You could achieve this in larger scales simply by making losses transmitting power much larger. For example if all metals became much worse at conducting.

If you fine tune it correctly you would get no effects at micro scales (so chemical reactions and neurones would still work fine) but large effects at macro scales.

This does mean that electronics (particularly simple electronics) would still work, however getting energy to them in order to power them would be extremely difficult.

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  • $\begingroup$ Depends on how you means "worse at conducting". Generally, that would mean more loss to heat. That heat would likely cause problems for modern/complex electronics too. $\endgroup$ – Telastyn Mar 2 '15 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Telastyn Yep, hence my "(particularly simple electronics)". $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 2 '15 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, making metals be worse conductors is the way to go here. Conductivity in metal uses the free electrons from metal bonds, while conductivity in nerves uses ions, and biology generally does not use metals in their free-electron form. Side effects would be metals becoming less shiny, but organic matter would be largely unaffected $\endgroup$ – HugoRune Mar 3 '15 at 0:13
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Instead of trying to remove all electricity how about creating an environment which more or less severely hampers its use. For example, an electromagnetic pulse essentially fries all electronics that are not shielded. Perhaps the Earth's magnetic field has been modified to constantly generate EMPs. At first this was a surprise so 95% of electronics went down. Since the effect is now constant, things can be rebuilt but it will take a long time to do this and because it happened so quickly many people died and the number of people left have to worry mostly about basic survival. Small amounts of electric devices can still function if they are shielded(Faraday cage) but it really doesn't do much good for society in general. Since one working light that is run on batteries in a Faraday cage can only work in the Faraday cage and then there will be no more batteries. One could even say that the EMP bursts only occur once a week/month/etc.

I could elaborate more but I think you get the idea.

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As often is the case, Belgian comic books have done it before, in Jommeke 205: The copper microbes (Dutch title: De kopermicroben).

enter image description here

This album is basically a classic grey goo scenario devised by a mad scientist, but instead of the grey goo destroying the copper of the high voltage wires, it makes the copper non-conductive to electricity. for added effect, it's also reversible. In addition, it also means that anything that relies on electricity doesn't break (it all works again after the crisis is over), and that battery-operated items don't break.

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Look up the Carrington event of 1859.

From Wikipedia:

Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving telegraph operators electric shocks. Telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph operators could continue to send and receive messages despite having disconnected their power supplies.

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  • $\begingroup$ That doesn't sound like the electricity stopped, but that there was an event that increased the charge $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Mar 3 '15 at 13:49
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Telastyn has the real answer, so I wanted to give a goofy one which meets the goals, but shows how tricky it's going to be to accomplish them, maybe with a wee bit of humor

Give every electron one of these:

The reason electricity flows is because the electrons are not 1:1 bound to specific protons. They're allowed to flow from atom to atom within metals. If each proton could give its electrons monkey backpacks (and not get the cords tangled), the electrons could go far enough to bond to make covalent molecules, but not metals or ionized gases.

The only issue is that this is a classical solution. If you admit QM, you're going to have to worry about electrons quantum tunneling out of your monkey backpack (every parent's worst fear). There are also the issues of electrons thinking it's hillarious to tie their parents (I mean protons) in knots.


In electrical engineering, we have this idea of a "drift velocity" to describe current. You can calculate the statistical drift of electrons through a wire. Wikipedia's example calculates that 3A through a particular thickness of wire yielded a drift velocity of -2.8 mm/s. Compare that against the Fermi velocity, which measures the rate that electrons bounce around at room temperature, of 1,570km/s (or 1,570,000,000 mm/s to keep the units the same between the two values). There's not actually all that much movement in electricity!

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    $\begingroup$ You probably should have explained what "these" are! I had to google quite a bit before realizing they were just a leash for kids, just with a little less chance of getting yourself on the yearly Amnesty International report... $\endgroup$ – Alexander Kosubek Mar 2 '15 at 16:08
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A Solar flare is the most likely scenario, but not the only way to put the Earth back into Dark Ages! A comet or meteor would also do just as nice. Scientists data prove that if one of these cataclysms were to happen, it would take at least 10-30 years to restore our infrastructure on our power grids.

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The Photonic Belt from outer space (known also as "Bond" Radiations, "Photon Belt", "Photonic Belt" or "Photonic Band"). It was discovered in 1961 as unusual nebula. We normally understand nebula as a vast cloud-like mass of gas or dust. However in 1980s an important announcement of astronomical and historical significance was made that our solar system was, going to collide with an 'electromagnetic cloud' in the not too distant future (it was named the Golden Nebula).

Basically it's a huge torroid ("belt" of inter-dimensional light) which passes through our part of Milky Way in 26000-year cycle. Its intense electromagnetic radiation (the magnetic flow) throughout the visible spectrum and beyond, into high-frequency invisible light, including some x-ray spectra, can affect and interfere with our existing electromagnetic fields (devices) including solar panels (as they're not able to generate stable flow of electric charge, in other words electromagnetic fields).

Photon Belt

Sources:

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    $\begingroup$ -1 "There is no scientific evidence for the existence of any sort of 'photon belt'." $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 3 '15 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ Your wording seems to imply that these are known facts of science and not widely unaccepted (New Age philosophy) theories. Had you begun with "If they exist..." $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 3 '15 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ I was interested, having never heard of this. Then it took until the end of the wiki page to find my quote and I said to myself, oh that's why I've never heard of it before. I find your answer exceptionally well formatted but the scientist in me just can't abide your science, and the editor in me won't let you slip it by as such. The whole time I'm reading your answer I'm going wtf, why I never hear this before or seen this picture. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 4 '15 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ It was discovered in 1961. No, it wasn't. And see the section in the Wikipedia article on "criticism." The first point is good; the second can not be argued against: "Alcyone is a star in the Pleiades cluster, some 440 light-years away. The core of the Pleiades cluster is approximately 8 light-years across. The Sun, and with it the Earth, is moving away from Alcyone." The idea is hokum. Oh, and, if I could, an extra -1 for your comment containing "Because it's too advance for science to grasp, as science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature." $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Mar 6 '15 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ "Inter-dimensional light"? This is sub B-movie drek. The answer "just make up something stupid" is excluded by implication by having asked on this SE. By asking here, the OP is interested in hard SF, good literature, and robust suspension of disbelief. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 10 '15 at 13:22

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