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In a short timeframe, Earthlings have developed quite an array of fantastic technologies, perhaps spurred on by an industrial revolution owing to early and abundant access to fossil fuels. Go outside these days and you might see someone wearing an elaborate device on their head receiving ultra-high frequency radio waves from their personal supercomputer connected via more radio waves to an absolutely massive antenna which is part of a global network. These same supercomputers receive navigational data from a constellation of orbital devices thrown into the sky by really big, sustained explosions.

Many of these technologies are enabled mostly by some very specific materials. For example, a critical component of modern transmitters is the quartz crystal oscillator. But is quartz likely to be found on other planets? Would wireless technology of our capabilities have been possible if it wasn't - and spaceflight, at that? Perhaps life truly exists on many other planets, but not one in this galaxy was dealt the combination of materials to enable spaceflight.

So, the question: What materials are there that have enabled key technologies in human history (especially on the path to spaceflight) that could be very rare even on other earthlike planets? One that I have already mentioned might be fossil fuels, but I'd love to hear more detail on why fossil fuels might or might not be rare and what technologies they might be crucial for or if there are alternatives. I am more interested in identifying what these key materials are than the strict scientific likelihood that other earthlike planets may not contain them.

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    $\begingroup$ They recently changed the thought that supernovas create the majority of heavier elements and instead attribute them to the merger of binary neutron stars, apparently such a merger occurred 100 million years before our solar system formed, their rarity is once every 100,000 years which isn't much but rarer than the 50yr supernova average space.com/neutron-star-crash-age-formed-solar-system.html $\endgroup$ – user69935 Jun 25 at 14:39
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Cellulose

Cellulose is the organic compound that makes plants woody. On Earth, photosyntetic life existed for over 3 billion years before the advent of cellulose; so, it seems very possible for a world to exist indefinitely without life ever evolving the stuff.

The evolution of cellulose is important because nearly every primitive technology hinges on the availability of wood: Tools, weapons, ceramics, traps, etc. The evolution of cellulose is also responsible for the formation of most of the world's fossil fuels because when it first appeared, decomposers were not able to digest it so every plant that died between about 358.9 and 298.9 million years ago was unable to decompose it. So, not only does no wood mean no logs to burn, it also means no fossil fuels to burn either.

Without cellulose, and by consequence wood, man kind would not have had nearly as much evolutionary pressure to become an intelligent species to begin with.

The big difference between cellulose and other answers that point to basic elements is that any element that may be more or less rare will still probably be found in some proportion on other Earth like worlds. Because cellulose only exists in nature as the result of an organic process. A world without it is 100% without it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, a world without wood, world without trees. One may say that primates could not have arisen in such world. Another may say that tree niche is just too big to be left wide open. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 25 at 23:27
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An Earth-like planet may have a surface which is very poor in Siderophile elements

The Earth has a lot of iron, and this iron is concentrated mainly in its core. Accordingly, a number of elements that have high affinity to the iron also had sunk to the core, making them very rare on surface. Examples of such elements include Gold, Platinum, Palladium and other metals that were called "precious", as well as other non-precious transition metals.

What if on the other planet more iron got concentrated in the core? What if siderophilic division was more pronounced? This would mean that many rare elements would become more rare. Also, the elements that are fairly common on Earth, like nickel, cobalt and even copper can become precious.

A shortage of many elements can create obstacles in technological development. A shortage of copper may delay or even cancel "bronze age". A shortage of heavy metals used as catalysts would upend chemical industry and make combustion engines more problematic to run.

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  • $\begingroup$ The bronze age is a bit of a misnomer since iron was actually discovered around the same time. We have a lot more bronze artifacts than iron from that time period because they don't rust and fall apart as easily, but all sorts of iron artifacts have been found in dryer regions where they survive better spanning the whole bronze age. Without copper, I doubt technology would not have been meaningfully impeded until the digital age where we now rely on it for mass production of electronics and power grids. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jun 25 at 19:44
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Fossil fuels and rare earth elements have both been critically important in developing our modern spaceflight capabilities:

  • Fossil fuels require fossils. If you're on a previously lifeless planet that was settled in the past few millennia, it will not have fossil fuels. And as @John points out in comments, even planets with abundant natural resources might not have many fossil fuels. The Apollo missions got to the Moon using RP-1, which is a fossil fuel.
  • Rare Earth elements can be rare. This article offers a good overview of the importance of rare earth elements in modern electronics. TLDR: "some products simply require rare earths." You may not think about neodymium or lanthanum very often, but rare earths are a big deal. Some planets have these resources, but some do not.
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  • $\begingroup$ it just doesn't have to be due to settling, fossils fuels are very abundant on earth becasue cellulose and wood evolved and then it took millions of years for something to evolve that could digest it. A planet without that lag could easily have almost no fossil fuels. $\endgroup$ – John Jun 25 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @John that's a good point, I edited my answer to clarify $\endgroup$ – Andrew Brēza Jun 25 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Fossil fuels would only be a problem for coal itself. Petroleum may be abiogenic in origin. Though without coal, it's difficult to imagine industrialization or steel industries, so that's bad enough all by itself. $\endgroup$ – John O Jun 25 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO I'd never head the abiogenic theory, that's interesting. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Brēza Jun 25 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ The basic idea is that methane and longer carbon chains are primordial, and each planet gets some share of those when a solar system forms (as long as it doesn't boil away). Earth got its fair share, and its buried. Bacteria do metabolize it to some extent, and pressure/temperature change its chemistry a bit, but it's not dinosaur goop necessarily (coal is, undoubtedly fossil in origin). $\endgroup$ – John O Jun 25 at 20:58
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Earth is full of useful stuff to people because people invented the stuff here: The most straightforward answer is that we have developed all of our science and technology, even the culture of how we use this stuff, under a specific set of environmental conditions. It's Earth atmosphere, Earth gravity, Earth mix of elements, Earth life, and lots of humans. While space may be full of wonderful and useful things, it lacks the synergy of the techno-evolution that went into everything we have. Another planet may have more minerals but crushing gravity. This planet has thick oxygen but giant predatory insects that incessantly attack. We use fossil fuels because they are abundant, but other planets may have carbon in alternative forms - that we haven't developed tech to utilize. For centuries after we leave Earth, we will still find it the paradise of synergistic tech, until we find easy to use resources on other worlds. Even then, until we alter humanity to go along with new environments, everything will just work better on Earth.

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Quartz is likely to be found on other planets as silicon and oxygen are likely to be present in the crust. Normally there are other ways of doing most things even if they might be less efficient or more costly ways. For example Vostok 1 carried Yuri Gagarin into orbit with the help of valve technology and other very rudimentary electrical kit by our standards today.

I suspect that tweaking a single material might not have the desired effect it might delay and mix up the order of discoveries which would be interesting but would not necessarily provide a total road block. For example if there is no copper some other metal or alloy might be used. Not as efficient but could still work.

So I suggest a very actively volcanic planet where the surface is renewed by volcanism with basaltic magma on a regular (by geological standards) time frame. Such as happened in parts of Siberia – the Siberian traps. On a big enough scale this could prevent ore deposits from other magma or hydrothermal sources from accumulating and deeply bury those that did exist making them very difficult to access.

This might mean that most transition elements (heavy metals) with the exception of Iron and Titanium would become very rare. So it would be hard to have a Bronze Age without tin or copper so we would have to jump to the iron age. But lack of other key metals like copper, zinc, tin, lead, silver and gold would totally disrupt many technologies.

It would make electrochemistry very difficult as neither iron nor titanium can be electro deposited from aqueous solution unlike nickel, copper, silver and gold. Battery technology without copper, nickel, zinc and lead would be very difficult to say the least.

The generation of electricity would be possible but it would be harder all round as iron wires are not as malleable or as ductile as copper wires and have a greater resistance, so it might be far less practical.

Steam engine development would also be possible although would be less efficient and less practical limited just to iron.

Steel making would not be possible. That would affect many construction technologies and the size of buildings and bridges would be reduced. The lack of good tooling for drills and lathes would also inhibit the manufacture of many if not most precision engineered parts.

Without access to specialist alloys for liquid rocket engines space travel would become much harder, if it was possible at all it would not be practical.

Fire arms would not be practical without a range of metals for use in alloying.

There would be no gold standard or silver standard so financial development would be hindered and would have to follow a different path.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you're having flood basalts like the Siberian Traps going on all the time, the possibility of there being a civilization at all is so minimal that the lack of specific metals isn't going to be an issue. You're talking about an ongoing, global, mass extinction event. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Jun 25 at 17:58
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As far as we are aware most of the elements found in our solar system are widely distributed across the universe. In fact astronomers separate all stars into classes based on the abundance of elements above hydrogen and helium in the period table. (This is called metalicity but in reality the term refers to ALL elements in the period table including the non-metals that aren't hydrogen or helium.) The sun is a type one (metal rich star.)

So if you are talking about an Earth type planet orbiting a Sol type star it is far more likely and not that its inhabitants could access all the elements we can albeit in potentially widely varying amounts.

That being the case it could as a simple as the degree plate tectonics and the amount of the surface covered by water on the planet. If your hypothetical world is relatively low % of iron in its core and is less active tectonically active the amount iron in the crust would be reduced significantly. This might/should lead to less mountain building, and smaller continents. Earth as a roughly 30/70 land to water surface ration. Your planet might be far less than that say 15-85 . You cant access minerals if they are buried deep under the ocean - not as an early, low tech society anyway.

The other issue is the distribution of key minerals in the crust. Iron is common throughout the earths soils because its common in the crust. But we only actively mine and extract it when it's found in concentrated forms in ore bodies. Same thing for all other elements. Given sensitive enough instruments you could probably detect minute traces of gold and uranium in you back yard. Would you be able to mine/extract enough to make the effort worthwhile - no way.

So you could simply hypothesize that while all the elements we have are there on your planet they are simply to hard to get to (under water/deep in the crust) or to finely dispersed to make extraction viable. For the sake of your story I would suggest picking or two key metals and making them 'rarer' in this fashion. Best choices would be copper,tin or of course iron. Hard to develop metal working in a big way when you don't have a lot of these to work with.

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