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You've been transported into a world with a medieval tech level. This world has coal deposits, but no petroleum deposits. You have no chemistry equipment with you, but you can use glassblowing or blacksmithing to make any vessels you need. You have also memorized a few college-level chemistry textbooks before you came here. With magic, you are able to:

  • telekinetically move or float anything light enough to hold in your hand
  • create high-voltage electrical arcs
  • heat or cool anything. Takes a long time, but with sufficient insulation you can theoretically indefinitely heat or cool any material you want, so liquid hydrogen and molten tungsten are not out of the question.

Ignoring cost and time, what kinds of chemicals would you be able to make? Specifically, would you be able to synthesize:

  • Plastic (any sort of it, including bakelite or polylactic acid)
  • Explosives: TNT, guncotton, nitroglycerin, smokeless powder
  • Medicines
  • Rocket fuel of any sort (other than liquid oxygen and hydrogen)

I have ideas for ways to make some chemicals:

  • Gathering hydrogen peroxide from special bacteria
  • Making ethanol from plants like grains or sugars
  • Creating nitric acid from electric arcs

EDIT: Maybe I should have clarified that automating many tasks, including magic-based tasks, are not particularly difficult, and the organic matter that should have been made into petroleum was turned into non-hydrocarbon, non-combustible magical fuel instead. With enough magical fuel, you can use the forbidden arts to build an magical toaster or electric arc machine or air compressor, the workers at the chemical factories could be necromantic zombies, etc.

In other words, carrying out the industrial processes wouldn't be so much of an issue as the number of processes to remember, or the ability to gather the necessary materials.

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closed as too broad by Mathaddict, Cyn, Hoyle's ghost, Frostfyre, kingledion Apr 26 at 13:03

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE plenglin. This sounds like the makings of an interesting story. It's a rather broad question though. Can we make plastic? meds? fuel? You could write an entire novel answering those questions (and maybe you should!). Why don't you start with one item, whichever one is most pressing for you. Or one that you use to make other things. For example "Can I make hydrogen peroxide and what is the highest concentration I could get?" If the answer is a high concentration, there's your rocket fuel... $\endgroup$ – Cyn Apr 25 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ So they already have coal. Coal (and natural gas) can be converted into liquid hydrocarbons, by the Fischer–Tropsch process. So that if you have coal you also have the basis of a petrochemical industry, at a somewhat higher price for the feedstock. Countries with lots of coal or gas and little petroleum have massive coal liquefaction plants, for example Sasol in South Africa. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 25 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Seconding Cyn's suggestion. I've cobbled together an answer briefly touching on the key points of your questions and it is already a Huge-Wall-O-Text. Maybe I need to precis harder, but your question is super broad and full of sub-questions that might merit being asked individually. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Apr 25 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ 1632 $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz Apr 25 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ A list of every chemical not requiring petroleum to produce and the processes to make them would be pretty long. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Apr 25 at 21:47
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Technically the answer is yes. If you have coal, you can make coal tar and coal gas. They aren't as good as actual oil, but they're still a splendid source of hydrocarbons for industrial and medicinal use. I'm sure with sufficient chemical cunning, a big fossil hydrocarbon-based chemical industry could arise.

With your modern knowledge you could probably kickstart an industrial, chemical and pharmaceutical revolution... but there's a good chance that you won't live long enough to see it pan out. Building an industry from nothing will be very hard, especially when there's no mass production, electricity or even much education around!

Note that none of the suggestions (with the exception of liquid oxygen) I've made below require or make use of your magic. If something is easy enough to be achievable, you can probably get the raw materials even back in medieval times. All the telekinetically lifted molten tungsten in the world won't make you any anthraquinones.


Ignoring cost and time, what kinds of chemicals would you be able to make?

Obvious things you've missed out in your list include fuels such as biodiesel (skip the steam age! you are adding steam engines to your list of inventions too, right?) and useful chemicals such as chlorine-based bleach or nitrate- and phosphate-based fertilisers all of which should be in your capabilities to produce.

More importantly, why not introduce electricity and electric motors? Not chemistry or magic, but incredibly useful nonetheless. Not to mention hot air balloons and gliders...

Plastic (any sort of it, including bakelite or polylactic acid)

For bakelite you'll be needing formaldehyde and phenol. These might be within your ability to make. The former can be made from methanol (also called wood alcohol, cos you can make it from wood) and the latter from coal or coal tar.

I suspect that most other plastics will fall into the category of "Things that will be made as a result of the revolution you started" rather than "Things you'll make whilst still alive". The raw materials for PLA are potentially available to you, and it is possible to make other polymer feedstocks from coal-derived chemicals(see methanol to olefins for a modern example) but the synthesis is likely to be far too hard for your medieval wizard. Making the catalysts needed for polymerisation is probably all but impractical. Maybe some future wizard will discover them and name them after you.

Explosives: TNT, guncotton, nitroglycerin, smokeless powder

Obvious answer: gunpowder. It might already be popular, depending on your time period. Given potassium nitrate (the oxidiser in gunpowder) you can make nitric acid. Potassium nitrate, also known as saltpetre, is a naturally occuring mineral and you can make it from manure or even urine. Sulphuric acid can be made from sulphur (also a naturally occurring mineral, and an ingredient for gunpowder) with a little effort, and with those two acids you can make all sorts of fun things, including guncotton and nitroglycerine.

TNT is Quite Hard to make, even these days. Composition C might well be possible though... you'll need some sulphuric and nitric acids and hexamine, and to make that you'll need formaldehyde, so there's nothing there that's obviously insurmountable.

Medicines

Oh, all sorts. This might be the easiest place to start building your empire. Introducing anaesthetics might be as simple as making some ether or chloroform. You'll need some ethanol and some sulphuric acid for the former, which should be straightforward to procure. Extracting exciting alkaloids from plants (eg. morphine) isn't rocket science!

The big improvements in medicine would be things like germ theory, hygiene and antibiotics, and these aren't necessarily in the domain of the chemist (but you could introduce them anyway, I'm sure).

Rocket fuel of any sort (other than liquid oxygen and hydrogen)

Gunpowder again? Hydrogen peroxide is also possible, though neither will get you in to space. You'll mostly be wanting better metallurgy, I suspect, to make good use of your new propellants. Liquid hydrogen would probably be too hard to work with, but LOX would work with all sorts of other fuels that you could probably get your hands on. Alcohol/LOX, anyone?

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  • $\begingroup$ The high-voltage arc probably gives you electrolysis, so you have hydrogen to play with too. $\endgroup$ – fectin Apr 26 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ @fectin I couldn't think of anything immediately useful to do with the hydrogen, so I didn't mention it. You could also get it using the magic heat-generation mechanism and a steam reformer if you wanted to do it the hard way. Electrolysis can also give you chlorine, which seems like it might have more immediate uses in medieval-land. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Apr 26 at 6:54
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The short answer is "no"

Access to the equivalent of a stove, a 'fridge, and a lightening bolt doesn't give you the ability to access any chemicals not already accessible during that time period. Specifically:

  • Gunpowder pre-existed Medieval Europe.

The rest of it requires everywhere from small to massive processing. My college-level Organic Chemistry text (which I still have) doesn't tell me how to manufacture rocket fuel or pharmaceuticals of any kind. It also doesn't explain how to manufacture microscopes, flasks, clean rooms, safety equipment, or any such else.

  1. Your traveler would need to memorize and/or have access to the better part of 50-100 textbooks on chemistry, physics, manufacturing, electricity, and more.

  2. Your traveler would need time to create power distribution systems, and hundreds of electrical or mechanical instruments.

  3. Your traveler would need time to create manufacturing facilities (most chemistry requires processes, not just the combination of a couple of chemicals).

  4. Your traveler would need to hire hundreds of people and train them in everything from construction to factory work to advanced processing, raising their knowledge so far above that of their peers you'd risk starting civil wars.

  5. Pharmaceuticals are absolutely out of the question with the exception of some basics (aspirin comes to mind) that can already be derived in part or in full via the pharmacology of the time.

We are occasionally asked, "how can I get advanced tech X in the medieval age?" questions. Pretty much all of them suffer from the same problem. Quoting from an answer of mine in Meta:

Technology is a massive mountain. Today, right now, we're standing on the top of that mountain. What's below us is a nearly unfathomable amount of knowledge and experience. Choosing [insert conditions of your question here] is like picking up three rocks on the mountain (presumably one at the bottom, one in the middle, one at the top) — and then expecting those three rocks to lift you high enough that you can rebuild the mountain in less time than it took to build it in the first place.

It would take a lifetime to scratch the surface of what you're trying to do. You need to declare it to be so and move on with your story. There isn't a believable path that represents a reality-based or science-based answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Please note that questions "Can I do X in the lab?" and "Can I have X-producing industry?" are different. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 25 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander am I missing something? The title question is "Creating a chemical industry without petroleum." What's the question concerning a lab? (And it's not that different. See my comment about microscopes in my answer.) $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 25 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ While your answer is correct, your line of reasoning is that synthesis of the substances in question would be impossible in principle (rather than impossible on the industrial basis). Medieval lab was already well-equipped for chemical experiments which would be conducted centuries later (and microscopes are not really needed there). $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 25 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander Can you justify that the medieval lab is well equipped to develop processes for rocket fuel, pharmaceuticals, and plastics? Please don't be argumentative. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 25 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ For pharmaceuticals and plastics, good question is "which ones"? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 25 at 18:42
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Pyrolysis of wood can be the basis of your chemical industry.

In pyrolysis process, wood (or virtually any other organic matter) is heated in the absence of air. If properly done, it results in charcoal and pyrolysis_oil vapors. Those vapors need to be captured and separated into individual substances. Pyrolisis oil is still quite different from oil's naphtha, but the pathway to most organic components that you want is much shorter now.

Another way that you already mentioned is fermentation, which results in ethanol and or other alcohols.

Electric arc that you also mentioned is indeed a good way to produce nitric acid, which should give you a pathway to other strong acids, which, in turn, can be used for dehydration and substitution, eventually giving you hydrocarbons and plastics.

P.S. All those things above would be doable in small quantities in an "alchemist's lab" environment. Building a whole industry producing all the substances (XIX or XX tech level) is a much bigger task.

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Certainly you can do much practical chemistry without petroleum. The modern organic chemical industry was founded on chemicals produced from coal tar, starting with Perkin's discovery of mauveine http://www.victorianweb.org/science/perkin.html Many other chemicals were produced from it, including phamecuticals (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_aspirin#18th_and_19th_centuries ), explosives (picric acid), and precursor chemicals such as phenol.

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If you can heat/cool things and create electric arcs and have modern chemistry knowledge you can jumpstart large scale manufacturing of modern explosives, that are way better then medieval black powder. You won't be able to build artillery tubes because the metalworking isn't advanced enough but you can manufacture hand granades, like the german potato masher, and high explosives for the sappers. Your king will be most pleased and will set up a royal arsenal to manufacture a lot of these granades and charges. So, there will be demand and, with demand, you can create a manufacturing complex (aka industry).

If you can create electric arcs/know high school chemistry you can create batteries. With enough batteries and some way to recharge them (maybe a mill on a river generating current), you can create aluminium metal. Aluminium would be a godsend to the medieval people. A metal that is very light and strong enough to be useful, that withstand corrosion in normal conditions, has many uses. And if you have uses, you have demand and if you have demand you have an industrial complex.

But i would advise against appearing in medieval europe - too few people, too poor. Appear in India or in Syria or even better, in Tang/Sung China.

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  • $\begingroup$ Forgot to mention - high explosives will improve mining and water engeneering, allowing the society to be more productive due to better mines and better irrigation/naviagation. $\endgroup$ – Geronimo Apr 26 at 12:21

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