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Our civilization takes electricity for granted, and electrical devices are used to produce more such devices. We convert other forms of energy into electrical energy via motors (magnet + coil), chemical batteries, and solar panels. Electricity can oxidize/reduce chemicals, which can, for example, turn bauxite ore into elemental aluminum, split sodium chloride, etc. Some of these refined chemicals feed back into the electrical industry, like the use of aluminum wires or various battery formulations.

We know that the Earth is endowed with naturally occurring stuff like magnetic lodestones and elemental copper, which makes it straightforward to create a motor. From there, you can generate electricity, create new permanent magnets via electromagnets, and redox chemicals. However, many useful chemical elements are locked up in oxides, compounds, and minerals in their natural form, so they usually need electricity for purification into a more useful form.

I suspect that to bootstrap an electrical industry, you need some kind of metallic conductor for wires, plus either a permanent magnet (generate voltage through induction) or suitable chemicals for a battery (e.g. copper + zinc + acid). On the other hand, electric eels show that electricity can be generated in biological ways, different from what we do in human industry.

So what are some minimum sets of materials needed to start an electrical industry from scratch?
What conditions could a planet have which would hinder or prevent such from happening?

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    $\begingroup$ so they usually need electricity for purification into a more useful form False assumption. Electrochemistry is just a (smallish) part of chemistry, which mainly uses temperature, pressure, solvation for controlling the reaction. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2020 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ "Many useful chemical elements are locked up in oxides, compounds, and minerals in their natural form, so they usually need electricity for purification into a more useful form": with such well-known examples as iron, copper, tin, and lead, which as everybody knows were totally unavailable before the industrialization of electric power in the 19th century. I wonder how those Bronze and Iron Age peoples obtained their bronze and iron. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 6:09
  • $\begingroup$ See also silver, gold, and even aluminum. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 0:58

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The most basic materials needed to "bootstrap" and electrical industry are cheap and efficient conductors for power distribution.

Molecular structure is dependent on electric differentials, so production of electricity by chemical, thermo or nuclear means is inherent, abundant and has various forms that are relatively easy to understand and manipulate.

The biggest problems facing industrialization of electricity is evident is its distribution. This is historically well-documented and studied in human industrialization of electricity, one of the earliest controversies being in the form of AC vs DC power distribution (e.g. Edison vs Tesla).

Although lack of abundant conductor material may hinder electrical production, as you pointed out in the example of copper wound motors, there are vast possibilities in the production of electricity outside metallic conductors, but our access to cheap metallic conductors prohibit their use on our planet, but such production mechanisms and materials may be abundant on another planet.

Absent cheap, malleable conductive metals, industrial electrical distribution is relegated to biological means, such as ionized liquids or worse, radiation. Neuron signal conduction is signal conduction via ionization, while radiation is evident in things like wireless charging (although wireless transmission of power has been proposed on larger, impractical scales).

Thus, solid, durable, cheap (abundant) conductive materials (i.e. metals) are the requisite base for industrialization of electricity. If you are more curious about the industrialization of electrical production, assuming conductive materials are present, it seems impossible there is any system that has solid, durable, cheap conductive material available without the means to industrialize its production.

For a moment, let's assume that a "water world" exists with abundant electric eels, such that electrical production via biological means is abundant, cheap and readily available for sale, as the eels exist in enormous quantities. One could surmise that the farming and distribution of such eels could constitute "industrialized electricity." But owning electric eels would still require plugging them into a devices for utility, while keeping them alive (i.e. "charging" them). Eels are analogous to "batteries" in this case, but as is evident in our society, batteries are specialized means of electrical distribution, not an industrial means of distribution.

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We know that the Earth is endowed with naturally occurring stuff like magnetic lodestones and elemental copper, which makes it straightforward to create a motor. From there, you can generate electricity, create new permanent magnets via electromagnets

Do we?

Because I've not seen a good 'straightforward' answer on how to make a magnet without other relatively strong permanent magnets to make electricity.

As far as I can tell, lodestones won't run motor or a generator.

So, for boot-strapping? I'd take a roll of rare-earth magnets; or preferably an engine or generator of some kind - so you could rapidly get into the magnet business.

How hard is it to build a generator if you've jumped to the distant past?

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Conductors, insulators and magnetic materials

These are the three basic materials needed to start working with electricity.

1- Conductors

Electricity flows through conductors.

  • Generators
  • motors
  • transmission lines
  • wiring

are all possible because of conductors only.

2- Insulators

All conducting wires in motors, generators and wiring are covered with insulating materials for safety purposes. Transmission line on towers are places on insulators otherwise all electric current will flow to ground.

3- Magnetic materials

Loudspeakers, motors, generators, deflection yokes, interference suppressors, antenna rods, proximity sensors, recording heads, transformers and inductors use magnetic materials (Ferromagnetic or Ferrimagnetic)

We need a magnetic material with high permeability e.g. iron has permeability μ=6x10-3.

Without high permeability, the magnetic field formed inside the core will be so weak that it will be almost useless.

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