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A world idea I'm playing with for a sci-fi idea I'm working on has an atmosphere similar to the composition of Earth's atmosphere during the Carboniferous Period: Lots of oxygen, so while a human or a creature with similar breathing needs could probably breathe fine, that also means everything is extremely flammable. As this world is also relatively similar to Carboniferous Earth in that a large percentage of its overall landmass is covered in fairly dense forests, and while it's fairly damp and even downright swampy in many of these places, the higher oxygen content means that even damp things can sometimes Ignite.

The major sapient species on this world, as a result, are obviously fairly wary of fire hazards and fire in general; as a result, contrary to the evolution of technological progression in humans (which most sources say began in earnest with early man learning to harness fire), they likely wouldn't be able to harness and utilize Fire safely until much later in their civilization's development, when they would have the means to contain it and prevent its spread on a large scale. Even then, if they developed a means of harnessing fire at all after so long without it, it would probably be used sparingly and Very Carefully, limiting or at least slowing experimentation.

I have worked out a potential alternative: natural hot springs and other geothermal activity can be used in things like cooking and other complex food preparation, and the steam could probably be funneled or channeled to heat dwellings and power relatively simple machines, which in turn could probably open up new options for developing other technologies. They also behave and structure themselves in a fashion similar to an ant colony, and as a result already practice various forms of agriculture (similar to the practice of many in-real-life ant species that cultivate edible fungus and raise/"pasture" aphids for both nutrient-rich secretions and, eventually, meat) that would likely be aided by, and be an evolutionary pressure in favor of, the development of tools.

The one dilemma I have is this: while they can compensate for/find different paths to the development of various other technologies that seem to have shaped the development of human civilization, their aversion to/difficulty working with fire is going to make things like metallurgy difficult. While they were not initially a space-faring race, and only became aware of interplanetary travel when briefly invaded and occupied by a military power from another world before fighting them off and regaining independence later, they have likely seen the benefit of joining the intergalactic community on their own terms and are going to try and turn their hand to creating spacecraft, which will likely involve manufacturing things like metal and glass and plastic components (or, you know, rough equivalents) on a large scale. While it's possible that they borrowed new technology and ideas from their former oppressors, I was wondering how far along they could get in terms of Smelting Technology without outside influence, and how big of a jump that's going to be for them to make.

So, my question is this: if they have some means of funneling and redistributing steam for things like heating their nests and warming water (probably by digging tunnels or boring out large tree trunks for makeshift piping), could they somehow... Collect that heat, and use it to heat up something akin to a kiln or forge in function? Or is this something that, as far as we know, can only be accomplished with fire? Alternatively, what methods could be used to control the spread of fire enough to allow them a little more experimentation, given the higher amount of oxygen and increased likelihood and danger of accidental fire-starting?

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  • $\begingroup$ , lava doesn't get hot enough to melt iron or steel. You would be hard pressed to find laval hot enough to even get it to forging temprature. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 18 at 5:54
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In our history, getting metal up to heat was a big problem; so, we used billows to force extra air into a burning fuel source (coal/wood/etc.) In their version, they could mostly seal off the the fuel and only let air in through a valve that can be opened and shut. The more sealed off your fuel is, the better you can trap the heat for melting your ore. In many ways, metallurgy would be at least as easy, if not easier for them to figure out as it is for us.

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    $\begingroup$ I tend to agree with this. If the budding metallurgist is carful to remove flammables from the surroundings of the forge, there are certain benefits to that high-oxygen atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Jan 17 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ Right! If there's more oxygen, then the fire doesn't smother as quickly in an enclosed space, right? And it probably gets way hotter, too! :D $\endgroup$ – BonnetBee Jan 17 at 22:45
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Apart from the temperature the others mentioned there is another problem: You NEED coal (or other carbons) to create steel from iron. From Wikipedia: "Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, and sometimes other elements" So even if they can create the heat to run a kiln or forge they can't make steel without coal. Of course they can make charcoal from the trees but that also requires fire. They probably can make stuff like Bronze and Aluminum, the question is if that is enough for you.

What I would try if I was REALLY scared of fire: Build your forge in a cave with a (maybe artificial) waterfall in front of the opening to the cave.

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  • $\begingroup$ Coal isn't required, charcoal came first. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jan 18 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that is what I meant by making coal from the trees (I'll edit it), but the point is you still need fire to make charcoal and steel from charcoal and iron. $\endgroup$ – Fels Jan 18 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ Given the number of naturally-occurring forest fires there's probably plenty of Charcoal just lying around, and they also probably have access to something like Bog-Peat (which also burns hot and bright and has been used to stoke forges in the past), so once they get the basic concept down fuel shouldn't be a problem, especially once they start making it artificially. $\endgroup$ – BonnetBee Jan 18 at 16:33
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The biggest impediment to metalworking without fire is getting the metal to forging temperature.

Even the easiest to work metals, such as lead and tin, require temperatures around 300 C and 200 C respectively. These temperatures can be attained in a campfire, but geothermal steam of that temperature is pressurised and dangerous.

The truth is that without fire, your species will not achieve metallurgy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, that's kind of what I figured... Maybe they could manage Pottery this way, but not Metalworking. I guess they could always excavate rocks and/or build mounds of mud- they are like ants or termites, after all, so they're pretty strong and can move large loads with lots of them working together- and use those to create their first forges, and there would be plenty of charcoal around from the regular naturally-occurring fires, but would that be enough to keep the fire from spreading in an oxygen-rich atmosphere at such high temperatures? $\endgroup$ – BonnetBee Jan 17 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ Even pottery has issues because steam is wet and will mess up the clay. Perhaps you could have the species secrete a biological polymer from a specialised gland that has steel-like properties? They might build their vehicles using suitable plant materials and their own super-secretions. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Jan 17 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ Here's another alternative that admittedly seems a little silly, but which does have an interesting precedent in earth's ecology: Japanese Honeybees have a unique defense mechanism in which they swarm into a tight orb around an enemy, trapping it inside. They then vibrate their muscles in unison, which can generate heat upwards of 117 degrees Fahrenheit, cooking the predator to death. While this is still not quite hot enough on its own, and idk if being much bigger would mean these guys could generate more heat without injuring themselves, could something like that work? XD $\endgroup$ – BonnetBee Jan 17 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect that in a high oxygen atmosphere that this strategy will likely result in the swarm spontaneously combusting... $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Jan 17 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, probably not then XD $\endgroup$ – BonnetBee Jan 17 at 23:02

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