Imagine a Mark Wattney-like scenario, only on Titan and involving a decent-sized base being isolated instead of a single person. There is not, and never has been, the possibility of growing potatoes. There are "enough" protein packs and vitamin pills for the scenario, but only just enough, and no other existing calorie sources.

What is the minimum tech would someone need to chemically convert the hydrocarbons in the Titanic oceans into sugars, edible oils, possibly even alcohol? What is a plausible time to build a machine to convert those hydrocarbons into edible calories?

If this takes magic space replicators I'll have to think of something else — I would like something that could, in principle, be done in with early spacelab or space-shuttle era knowledge, if possible.

  • $\begingroup$ When you ask about building the machines, are these machines being built on Earth then sent to Titan or are these machines being made on Titan out of bits of the space base? If the latter what sort of resources does the space base have. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2019 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ We can do that today, it's just not worth the money for the most part. You want to convert a simple molecule (plus oxygen) into another simple molecule, that's super solved. Just say that they do it biotechnologically with an emergency pack of hydrocarbon oxidizing bacteria. We can't do that perhaps, but why not. It's a long time before we build a base on titan, that's much much harder than converting hydrocarbons. If you don't have a degree in biology or chemistry, that's pretty much as detailed as you should get if you are smart $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Dec 15, 2019 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ Presumably to make sugar you could just burn the hydrocarbon in oxygen and then stick the resulting CO2 and H2O in a room with some plants. As a bonus you'll even get some of your oxygen back. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2019 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ You might explain just what you mean by "a Mark Wattney-like scenario". $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Dec 15, 2019 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ For anyone who doesn't know, Mark Watney is the protagonist and narrator of The Martian: marooned alone on Mars with not quite enough food to last until the possibility of rescue. (Book by Andy Weir. I have not seen the movie.) $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2019 at 2:08

3 Answers 3


Edible fat from carbon monoxide via the Fischer-Tropsch process.

The Germans were faced with a related problem in the early part of the century. They had a lot of coal and brilliant chemists. They wanted liquid fuel for their machines and war effort. The Fischer-Tropsch process cracked coal down to short chain alkanes or carbon monoxide then reassembled them into medium chain alkanes: liquid fuel.

A side product from this process was waxes that could be processed into margarine.

Coal – in Liquid Form

In the early 1940s, nine German production sites were pro- ducing around 600,000 tons of liquid hydrocarbons every year. Nor were the primary products of Fischer-Tropsch synthesis used only for fuel production: they could be processed further into lubricating greases, soap or detergents, for example. It was even possible to conjure up synthetic butter. The inventor of this synthetic edible fat was chemist Arthur Imhausen. In the Second World War, Germans fighting in the African campaign and on U-boats ate almost exclusively Imhausen’s fat. It was easy to digest, didn’t go rancid and is reported to have had quite a nice taste. Experts confirmed that the daily consumption of up to 100 grams “is harmless and causes no irritations or disorders whatsoever.” His creation was thus given the go-ahead as the first synthetic food for human consumption.

Pretty cool, and road tested! 100 grams is only 717 calories but that is a nontrivial augmentation of your food stores and I think if 100 grams agreed with me for a few days I would be up for eating more.

On Titan you would just need to refine your alkane mix into precursors suitable for processing into margarine. Your colonists can eat the same diet as the German U-boat sailors.

  • $\begingroup$ When they created the synthetic butter, how did they figure out that it is edible? Were they specifically aiming for butter? $\endgroup$
    – nishuba
    Dec 16, 2019 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ @nishuba Butter is mostly fat and its chemical composition is known. So if you have something artifical with the same chemical composition, it is a reasonable guess that it is edible and tastes similar to butter. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Dec 16, 2019 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ ugh. i was just reading the other day the whole story about how margarine is a lot worse for you than was originally thought and after that i think i would rather just die than eat it... $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Dec 16, 2019 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael sound logic. Invent a food store augmenting thing to not starve to death and then not eat it because its bad for you in the long run. $\endgroup$
    – IT Alex
    Dec 16, 2019 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ Perfect for my needs. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – BenRW
    Dec 16, 2019 at 22:46

All of the elements needed for human life can be found on Titan. But it would require a large amount of technology to make it work nothing that is beyond our current understanding or abilities in chemical technology, but a large amount of technology.

Power Solar power would not be very efficient so nuclear would be a good option to begin with, however much lower tech options are available. The lakes on Titan experience small tides of 1m per day which might be used for power generation and liquid hydrocarbon flow might be harnessed in some areas in an alien form of hydro power. Three more potential sources of power would be burning acetylene in hydrogen to produce ethylene (both available locally), wind turbines and hydrothermal power from deep wells.

Raw materials Water is available in the crust of Titan in large quantities and nitrogen in the atmosphere. So electrolysis of water would be required to generate oxygen, a gas processing plant making use of the difference in boiling points of the different atmospheric gases could separate out nitrogen. Ammonia, methane and ethane are all present and a virtual organic soup of chemicals is to hand so should be possible to synthesise everything needed for human habitation.

Chemical synthesis That said I would not underestimate the sheer quantity of processes needed. All the raw materials are present but they would need a lot of processing to remove impurities and much more processing to transform them into all of the things humans would need. I would say 90% synthetic chemical plant and 10% habitat. It could probably become self-sufficient eventually, but this is not likely to ever occur for financial reasons and would not even be feasible for centuries due to the vast array of chemical and mechanical technology that would be needed.


I think before we could even REACH Titan we would need to be able to grow food in outer space. And with the ability to grow food in outer space, why should we waste time converting hydrocarbons on Titan to edible materials when we could just ship it over to a space station as fuel? Most of Titan consists of methane too.

Also, when methane is burned, we get carbon dioxide and water, which plants turn into sugar and oxygen. Not to mention the fact that it generates heat. That heat can be turned into electricity to run light sources to grow said plants. The only thing we need now is getting oxygen from bodies in space.

  • $\begingroup$ The Martian, IIRC, includes a scene where a disaster kills all the remaining potato plants. Growing food is hard if you don't have any viable plants/seeds to use. $\endgroup$
    – ceejayoz
    Dec 16, 2019 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ Conservation of energy alert. You need oxygen to burn methane into carbon dioxide and water. Whatever energy you produce from that is less than what you need to "feed" the plants to get the oxygen back. Methane probably isn't very useful as space-based fuel; you're going to be limited by the oxidizer (you need about twice the mass of methane in oxygen to burn). Regardless, you still need a energy input from somewhere - hopefully, whatever base you're stranded on has enough spare power capacity. If you have the oxygen, there's probably better ways to produce food out of methane than plants. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Dec 16, 2019 at 7:41

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