Short version kindly provided by Innovine

How do elves bootstrap their first metals and electricity production? Without burning easy stuff humans had for their initialization. If it is not possible then say so and why it is that way.

Fire or Flame as such is not prohibited, it is allowed they can electrolyze water get hydrogen and use it as a flame or use hydrogen as a reduction agent etc. What is unwanted is taking some firewood and burning it - as it would be too easy. There is no magic of unknown and different ways.

They can, if you provide instruction how, to concentrate solar radiation.

Knowledge is not limited - You can imagine our tech tree, they may have a complete copy of it. The question is - how do they make a first step on that path, having certain limitations.

Long version

typed by OP himself, handly crafter for your enjoyment and reading

  • ed note: for what it means "easy" fire, it is in the section Heating and fire in general and some other points
  • ed note: it is a very narrow problem, you do not have to think about whole technological development(how it can be, which stages it may have after the first step) or anything beyond the first step.
  • ed note: knowledge is not restricted, whatever top tech we have, knowledge about it can be used. it just about can you make it as the first step on that technological ladder within the scope restrictions

Spirit of the question, why the question

It is quite a regular motive in settings like how my SeaX creatures get in space from underwater or I would like to grow my tech tree not like the others for my special StrangeCreatures.

Like here in the question Highest technological level one can reach without fire? cats won't use fire because of fear. Okay, it's their business.

Electricity can be one of the replacements for fire in all those settings. Our today's technologies are a clear example of that for those who are not sure about it.

There are questions on the subject of how to build an electric generator from sticks and pines laying around, for your typical time traveler who got in the past not prepared and needs to charge his time machine. How hard is it to build a generator if you've jumped to the distant past?

  • in each category, there is more than one question, which was made as an example

Chicken vs egg

In both categories, it seems that a problem of chicken and eggs emerges. At least as a notion in comments, in answers for this or another reason.

There are at least 2 types of chicken and eggs here - having magnets for electricity generation or have metals for conductors, in case of no fire.

Is it really a chicken-egg problem?

Electrostatic generator is a type of machine which produces electricity without magnets, and still in use until those days in form of Van de Graaff generator as a convenient source of high voltage currents - so that's your electricity without magnets.

Carbon can be obtained as charcoal as an example and pressed in different shapes and used as a nonmetallic conductor. Gold found in nature, as pieces of gold - can be turned in wires relatively easily as well. Linon fiber, wool, oil, sap, latex - naturally occurring substances that can be used as isolators.

In some cases, there can be bottlenecks, like limited life span, absence of knowledge, not sufficient manpower, not sufficient reach for resources, author made things even harder and forbade more things to make his specific handwavium shine.

So we need to define a setting

So as a god you forbade your elves to use easy open fire they could get from firewood, coal, oil - as not sustainable and dirty and as it is burning remnants of life and they have to engrain the respect for life before they will be capable to distinguish bad form evil and burn oil, but you would like them eventually to reach fusion and space and maybe soften your positions a little bit in the future about oil burning as it is trapped carbon removed from the cycle of life. So their future reach of energy isn't a concern.

Because of your desire for them to achieve space and meet their creator, instead of your typical testament, you write them some essential pieces of knowledge to help them to overcome the initial problems you have created.

They have enough manpower, fruit trees everywhere, and nothing to do except fulfilling your wish and procreate, so as they have extended reach for resources on the planet - whatever can be found on earth is available to them a well, in similar places and similar problems, and they can get there on foot or just have people there living. All animals, plants present on earth you can think of are all present in that place as well. Rocks and stuff - the same. So striking those magical food sources and those creatures which have nothing to do, besides procreation - it would be your typical earth planet.

As available tools - you can handwave some starting position, for it to not get in the way of expressing the essence of the answer, but it is a slippery slope - so assuming hands and rocks is fine and well, domesticated animals as transporting means, wooden tools, wooden planks(giving life a second life, no problems) etc. But your typical metal tools are more like a nono, as we focusing on bootstrapping problem, but not let it get in the way of your answer, focus on what needs to be done mentality.

The question:

How shall they start their journey in their bright technological future?

How do they bootstrap their first metals and electricity production? Without burning easy stuff humans had for their initialization.

No-answer is also an answer - so if it is not possible then say so and why it is that way.

Everything above this line is sufficient to provide a good answer. Everything below this line does not change the question, but an attempt help someone to provide a better answer, for those who may need it, reading is not required.

As a suggestion, if possible

  • before you answer, do research on what is possible. It is not a siggestion to list that information in an answer.

Try to investigate which ways of electricity generation were used in history, if the only electricity source known for you is an alternator.

Take a look at which electricity sources can be found in nature.

Meaning, while thinking do not limit yourself just to one type of particular electricity generator we use today in every car, there is more of them available, this as an example: Fundamental Studies On Development Of MHD (Magnetohydrodynamic) Generator Implement On Wave Energy Harvesting

If there are some concerns about how do they get their iron without tools to dig mineshafts - look at the composition of basalt as an example.

The efficiency of initial bootstrapping isn't a concern - they have time and manpower on their side. The only criteria are something really possible or not. If your way needs a hundred years to get 1kg of metal you need with let's say 1 million people doing it - it is a pass. So as fishing for polymetallic nodules could be a pass too, but let's try to think of some faster ways, and more on making things happen with technological means.

@Anyone feel free to edit the Q in any way shape or form for grammar or nailing the essence of bootstrap problem or clarity.

P.S. If there is concern about what are the criteria for the win - closer to reality, least effort, faster, pleases technogods.


Overall there is a number of freedoms in this question: manpower, knowledge, reach for resources. So each solution can be represented as a vector in 3d space - (creature hours placed in a solution, the knowledge required difficulty of solutions, how scattered are the resources required)

  • No need for the chicken, the eggs are naturally available. Native copper exists, native (meteoric) iron exists, natural magnets exist. (The word magnet comes in the end from the name of the city Magnesia (modern Manisa) in Lydia (modern western Anatolia) around which in the Antiquity there were deposits of naturally magnetized lodestones.) - AlexP

True, all components are available and obtainable, and what needs to be done is your regular typical stuff - let's call it a trivial solution, technological difficulty zero. As a vector in solution space, it is - (minimal, basic/minimal, maximum), and basically, it is a current answer from @Zeiss Ikon

Yes, it is absolutely legit way and a solution. But it is easy to understand that it is not the only way. As an example, a substantial static generator can make magnets out of magnetic compounds, or replace a starting inductor, so it does not require to go and find a specific resource, the problem can be solved with a little amount of less specific materials.

It is good to have a trivial solution but clearly, you understand that it can't satisfy any perverse cravings of a random author, who wishes to be not like the other.

As a more substantial example, maybe, I come to the question because I argued that mirrors can be a legit way to bootstrap things. And in the past, I had an extensive discussion about how underwater creatures can start their thing. So sometimes there is a need for more general solutions which are less resource-specific.

  • Are you trying to get a million cats to do anything together? – NomadMaker

They do or don't. If they do not - there is no story to tell and nobody cares. We are interested in one case out of Centillion of Centillions cases - when they do. So it is not about cats, it just about random creatures which have a chance, cat's are some other guy's concerns. And it is about technology, it is not important who implements them.

  • Why do you assume that elves will follow the human technological progression path despite initial differences in conditions? Or is it something that you, God, want them to do? It seems that it would be much more logical for the elves to develop organic technologies than inorganic ones. – Otkin

I do not, more than that, I embrace the difference, just get me metals extraction and electricity as they are somewhat irreplaceable in the only tech tree we know. You like bacterias mollusks trees which bear metallic fruits - sure why not, if there is some reality for that.

Bacterias can be used, seen some proposals, they can work with metals - in solution space, this vector could be - (max, max, min) - a lot of selection, a lot of waiting, applicable almost anywhere. The least creature-specific approach - is the only good part about it, as it seems at the moment.

Elves are just a placeholder name for any creature with Hands and Brains, only because we know that at least one of such designs succeeded.

Heating and fire in general and some other points

  • Two consecutive answers regard heating as a big problem and so much so that lava considered a potential solution.

Fire or Flame as such is not prohibited, it is allowed (fixed the title as well)- they can electrolyze water get hydrogen and use it as a flame or use hydrogen as a reduction agent etc. What is somewhat prohibited or unwanted is taking some firewood and burn it - as it would be too easy and we know how it ended - Joke: global warming and nuclear bombs we like our Elves do better. Using "easy" fire is how it was done historically. There is no magic of unknown and different ways, you just need to read historical books and repeat. Yes, it can be not trivial, as details go, those who tried can confirm, but as concept and ideas, nothing special.

If you have the ability to split water, you can make hydrogen flame happen everywhere - on land or underwater. If you need it, you have to create conditions for it, instead of just taking a log and burn it. It is not a strict definition of a problem and it has gray areas and loopholes - you can have rotting plant materials and get methane from it due to microbiological activity, and then burn it - what is the difference then. In that case, you rely on a set of conditions to exists - microbiological life and free oxygen in required quantities. By electrolyzing, you produce fuel and an oxidizer by reliable laws of physics which exists everywhere - it is a universal way to convert your energy/electricity into a flame.

But flame for heating purposes can be replaced with friction, to quite a high degree - after all it how we did ignite the fire for quite a long time, but it capable of more.

And if u have electricity heating elements can be made in all sorts of ways. So as the sun provides you with some and you can concentrate it.

But if need fire then do make it.

There is no need to stick for crude means forever or on a great scale, more than it is necessary to start the process going. Make your first 1000 meters of copper wire, few magnets, and a typical electric generator (or whatever setup you like) and throw all that bootstrapping setup to trash aka recycling bin.

They can, if you provide instruction how, to concentrate solar radiation. Naturally occurring Rock crystals include quite transparent specimens and a million elves can grind and cut quite a lot of optical elements - not necessarily of perfect quality but overtake the problems with quantity - things do not have to be perfect from the start - they will resort to better means and ways later, they just need an initial kick.

Take look at how the Wimshurst machine works, as an example, here on the wiki, on youtube this video makes a good job animating and voice-over explaining how it works, and here is adult version of it. And you can do a lot with it, including nitrogen spark gap lasers, you do not need to stick to low level knowledge, knowledge is not restricted.

  • And keep in mind that the power is not limited here, as you can make series of such machines, a million, or how much you may need, guys rotating crankshafts, or animals, or water wheels or windmills. With 10-100kW you can do a loooot, and replace that stuff with better solutions quite fast.
  • it uses very little metal - foil amounts, so little amounts of gold you can find will suffice to make a lot of those.
  • output voltage of such machines, with which you work at the business end, does not have to be high, it can be few volts as an example - discharge it in a bigger capacitor on regular basis, etc
  • metals are not the only conductive materials, charcoal can be conductive, and even if it looks like gray area due to the restrictions there are naturally occurring fires, in forests, which also are part of life and are important processes of ecology and you can get charcoal there.

There is another machine Kelvin water dropper, it on the wiki and on youtube - and probably every part of it suitable to be replaced to not metals (like some wood with saline water in it something like that, just as an idea) basically making solid electrolyte, almost like your typical LiPo

Static electrictiy is not the only source of electrictiy which can be available - those are examples, you can use them or find other ways to solve the problem.

Knowledge is not limited - it is part of handwavium, as we do not care do they figure things in a million or 10 million years or are they provided with it by aliens, gods, uploaded to the brains in a simulation, or they have a copy of a wiki(and some better libraries) establishing colony on another planet from scratch, or else. You can imagine our tech tree, they may have a complete copy of it. The question is - how do they make a first step on that path, having certain limitations.

Another example, side note

if you have hydrogen then reduction of metals can be quite trivial this as an example Hydrogen reduction of iron oxide - grind things in powder and heat a little, no extreme heat, Joke: no dust no pollution, and it somewhat less demanding than conditions required to successfully make Bloomeries to work, curios people may look at youtube there were different projects of recreation of those.

Friction - friction welding is a thing, in different ways and forms, so is it a possibility to convert mechanical energy to very high temperatures, sufficient to melt the materials which are under the friction. So one does not need to jump to lava to get some heat even if there is nothing to burn, make your own lava if you need it.

Efficiency - a million good feed humans have the potential to produce 500MW for about an hour, and if 1% of it is not enough for you to kickstart the process, then probably it is time to think about gravity accumulators - water reservoirs and Co. In reality 10kW is sufficient to kickstart things.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Mar 20 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, this question in word processor counts 2800 words and five pages. It's a mid term assignment! How do you expect anybody to go through it? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Mar 21 at 7:47

12 Answers 12


Imagine your bootstrap people live in an area with easy access to plentiful, high quality linear prisms like if The Naica Mine of Chihuahua, Mexico were to open up to the air. And plentiful sunlight like the high plains of the Andes.

enter image description here

enter image description here

You could cut the glass crystals and string them together into a fresnel lens sheet.

enter image description here

One sheet could focus ambient sunlight into a line, then a secondary smaller prism sheet could focus further into a square.

To get a cooking area the equivalent of a stove (50 cm x 50 cm) and a cooking power of a modern stove (1,000 to 5,000 watts) (by the way these dimensions are roughly the same also as a campfire) you’d need a

${50 cm} \over {100 {{cm} \over {m}}}$ = 0.5 m x 0.5 m = $0.25 m^2$ area getting 3,000 watts of heat,

provided 30 ${watts}\over{m^2}$ by the sun; which is a ${{3,000 watts} \over {30 {{W} \over {m^2}}}} = 100$ fold magnification.

So, our little cooking area of $0.25 m^2$ needs $0.25 m^2 x 100 = 25 m^2 \rightarrow \sqrt{25} = 5 $ meter (15 feet) on a side primary lens.

It seems reasonable that a thatched together-lens could be stretched over poles. Not too implausible.

You could use these ovens to bake bricks (requiring 1,500 Watts), and scale up accordingly.

Heating at night might be a process of heating clay jugs water during the day to keep the people warm during the night.

The discovery of glass (also 1,500 Watts) and metal, I’ve read, was as slag cleaned out of ovens baking brick. These could be found the same way.

  • Soft metals (Copper, Silver, Gold, Lead) only require about 1,300 Watts to smelt 3 kg batches.
  • Medium alloys (Brass, Bronze) can also be made in a kiln (around 1,300 Watts)
  • Hard metals (Steel) require about 400 kilwatts.

A typical modern steel furnace consumes 400 kilowatts (400,000 watts). There are probably engineering issues with lens heat that would need to be solved. Maybe steel isn’t achievable along this route, as the quartz lenses themselves melt at a much lower temperature. However a lot of lower grade metals can be made with smaller solar furnaces.

Making electricity requires little more than salt, acid, and some sort of metals. So, as soon as you can produce lead and copper, you can produce electricity.

If they are not available, your batteries could just be voltaic piles that produce their power from the corrosion of the metal (which can be recycled in smelters). You need not even discover magnetism to discover this property of stacked metal.

enter image description here

If magnetic materials are available, and the understanding of electromagnetism is available, you could construct steam generators.

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    $\begingroup$ can you clarify your calculation a bit more, I don't see where you are getting many of these numbers. for instance ideal solar flux is only 1000 w/m^2. Also the crystals from those mines are selenite not glass, with very different optical properties. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 22 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ Added. I use 30 w/m^2, which is what I've read for average solar heating, on the ground. $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Mar 22 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see anything about Selenite blocking light in the visible spectrum, and I see several obviously optically clear examples in photos. What specific optical differences are you mentioning? $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Mar 22 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ The refractive index of Selenite is 1.51 to 1.53. Quartz would be 1.54 to 1.55, per the sources I'm checking. $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Mar 22 at 11:00
  • $\begingroup$ Not bad. One thing to note - those creatures do not have discover something by a chance, knowledge can be provided to them, q is not about how they develop, but how they do a first step, by chance of discoveries build up or by instructon that does not matter. Your last sentence, contains all the juce - which mettals those are and how they use them to make electricity? $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 22 at 12:01

On land, gold, silver, and copper are fairly commonly found as nuggets, sheets, or threads in rocks, usually quartz-bearing igneous forms like granite. They erode out of those rocks forming "placer" deposits; historically, there were places where nuggets of tens of grams were found just lying around on the surface of the ground.

Magnetite can also be found in nature (it's a form of iron oxide, a natural magnet); in Europe in our history, it was called lodestone (and was used for some of the earliest magnetic compasses).

You can probably see where I'm going: ductile (if rather soft) metals can form conducting wires or bars, which can become electrical generator if they move in a magnetic field or the field moves through the wire.

Once some genius understands what's happening here and can produce these generators on demand, they're off and running.

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    $\begingroup$ One of the Napoleons had native aluminium plates, from recollection. But even without having to dig or pan, there's meteoric iron to be found out there, and reasonable quantities of it too. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Mar 18 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ Working iron without a heat source would be really hard. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Mar 19 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ You can make smelt aluminum or even sodium and potassium chemically (the latter involve a form of thermite!), and once you have electricity and some understanding how it works, you can use induction to heat iron (and other metals) hot enough to work with a press or hammer. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Mar 19 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ this is good and solid, in my opinion, answer. everything in the clarification section, in reply to AlexP comment, applies to the answer. it is a member of a subset of trivial solutions, trivial obliviously from a technological complexity point of view, in a somewhat mathematical or theoretical sense. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 20 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ All you need are the metals. Two different metal types suspended in an acidic (fruit juice) solution creates a battery. No need for magnets. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Mar 21 at 10:14

There are a ton of options for how to progress. The simplest of which is to just hand your subjects detailed specifications of advanced technology and let them get to work.

If the goal is minimum impact, however, you just want to let things develop fairly parallel to the way things did on earth with a few steps.

Step 1: Stable Active Volcanoes

You need heat to be able to work metal. If you don't have fire, the next best thing is a set of stable, but active volcanoes. You want some kind of geologic activity that releases a steady supply of magma on the order of 400° C without exploding and killing everyone in the local area on a regular basis (alternately an easy way to predict when it will explode so that you can leave and come back).

Step 2: Bronze More Common that Iron

Iron is both harder to work with and less strong than Bronze, so you can skip the iron age altogether if the materials to make Bronze (i.e. Copper and Tin) are as readily available as Iron is on our Earth's crust.

Edit: As requested, here's a bit more clarity on why this matter:

One of the first metals ever worked by humans was copper. It is malleable, ductile, and relatively easy to mine and refine. Copper and tin make Bronze. Bronze is actually superior to Iron in just about every single capacity except 1: rarity. It's harder to find copper on Earth than iron, and thus the iron age happened ONLY because iron was cheaper than bronze.

Almost anything you could do with early steels, you can do with suitable Bronze easier, so the whole concept of steel production is pointless if you have as much copper and tin as iron.

There's very little handwavium needed for such a change too, as it's just a matter of resource availability on the surface of a single planet and doesn't need to affect the general availability of materials in the universe.

Step 3: Tell Your People About Electricity

Society is ingenious, and given time and a lack of fossil fuels, there are a mess of ways to do everything that we use fire for with electricity (especially if Copper is cheaper).

Pointing them in the right direction by making a not-so-subtle hint as to how to create electricity will give them a religious reason to study the applications of electricity, especially if you word it properly to help further motivate them towards discovery.

Electricity is easy for a society with a surplus of ductile metals like copper, silver, or gold. Spinning a lodestone in a coil of wire is as easy as running a mill, and water mills have existed since 300 BC, so endless renewable energy is not a problem.

Once they start doing that for fun and science, the world is their oyster.

Extra Credit: Gold More Common than Copper

Gold is an absurdly useful metal in the electrical era being more conductive and ductile than copper while corroding slower. The only thing that holds gold back is its relative rarity and traditional use as a currency which helps inflate its cost.

Presuming gold was more common than copper, you can expect it to be used as the primary source of wiring which would help keep the availability of copper as relatively common for use in Bronze.

Extra Credit 2: Warn Your People About Lead (and Mercury)

Lead is among the most dangerous metals on Earth because it's so dang useful...but also poisonous. Modern estimates for removing lead from pipes shows that, "For every dollar spent on addressing lead in drinking water, we would see at least two dollars in benefits." It should be noted that its significantly easier to just not put lead in the pipes in the first place. The same goes for makeup, paint, hats, and everything else we put lead in back in the day.

Warning your people about the dangers of lead (and probably Mercury too) would be relatively easy from an influence perspective, but could have a huge impact on their development once they hit that crucial industrial age.

Edit: Extra-est Credit: Hand out the plans for a printing press and encourage literacy

Maybe a bit meddlesome, but the advent of the printing press changed the entire world's scientific advancement calendar. Starting your people off early with a written language and the concept of a printing press will make them scientific powerhouses giving them a much better chance of breaking through from a Stone Age to a volcanic-powered Bronze Age which is necessary if they're going to step from the Bronze Age to an Electric Age.

  • $\begingroup$ as proportions of elements and their occurrences, there is no handwavium, so as hints can be howto step by step instructions - so knowledge also is not restricted, meaning u give bait and then observe. as heat requirements - there is electrolysis as an example u can make(probably) some blanks with it, and then use EDM like stuff or long and tedious electrolysis in a similar way as it is done in photopolymer 3d printing - idk those seem to be on pair with active volcanoes. but okay, your proposal is seen $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 19 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg I realize I could've added a bunch more benefits without going outside the realm of the question, but I was thinking of a minimum impact sort of solution, leaning into the "closer to reality, least effort" kind of solution. $\endgroup$ – SirTain Mar 19 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ working with lava is quite a challenge, but probably not impossible with preparations and all that - on that premise, one could spin quite a story easily. idk, as potential improvements - may u elaborate on copper availability, hmm I had a notion it hard to be available in metallic form, but thinking now I do have a ball of Lazurite with specs of what looks like some metal copper mix. The essence of the question is not in skipping epochs, once u have a source of electricity u can melt everything - q is about how do u get your first scratch on the problem, and as result to develop up and up $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 19 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ minimum impact - not necessarily the goal, noob god can be surprised, nothing bad about it. "The simplest of which is to just hand your subjects detailed specifications of advanced technology and let them get to work." - yes yes, please, which one it is. "There are a ton of options for how to progress." - spin the wheel, there is no limit one answer per person, we are looking for the best one. Current score - (closer to reality, least effort, faster, pleases technogods) = (4/10,undef,undef,4/10). $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 20 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ I understand that question starts to be dangerous big, but I also updated it. do the first step only, a second round. low reality scores mostly because of lava things, not impossible but.. undef's mostly because u try to imagine the whole technological development, and it not the point in the question. higher technogods score because of "Almost anything you could do with early steels, you can do with suitable Bronze easier" $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 20 at 9:18

Elves? Well, that makes it easy. The answer of course is to use wood. Well, not exactly wood. Let me explain.

As a steel substitute, your elves will first have come up with a way to densify wood. This can literally make wood stronger than steel while retaining its light weight.

A simple two-step process starts with boiling wood (using a smaller version of the sun crucible described below, not fire of course) in a solution of sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and sodium sulfite (Na2SO3), a chemical treatment similar to the first step in creating the wood pulp used to make paper. This partially removes lignin and hemicellulose (natural polymers that help stiffen a plant’s cell walls)—but it largely leaves the wood’s cellulose (another natural polymer) intact. You can obtain Na2SO3 by causticizing regular washing soda and slack lime.

The second step consists of compressing the treated wood until its cell walls collapse, then maintaining that compression as it is gently heated. The pressure and heat encourage the formation of chemical bonds between large numbers of hydrogen atoms and neighboring atoms in adjacent nanofibers of cellulose, greatly strengthening the material. Imagine a great stone press with ingenious lever systems to lift and add additional weights. Sunpower-crucibles can be used to warm the bottom stone to pizza-oven temperatures.

Compressed wood is three times as dense as the untreated substance, and its resistance to being ripped apart is increased more than 10-fold. It also can become about 50 times more resistant to compression and almost 20 times as stiff. The densified wood is also substantially harder, more scratch-resistant and more impact-resistant. It can be molded into almost any shape. Perhaps most importantly, the densified wood is also moisture-resistant. A five-layer, plywoodlike sandwich of densified wood can even stop simulated bullets fired into the material.

This is all science fact, of course:


Now, we also need a conductor. You have two paths here.

Crystal lenses can be polished into nice solar furnace, which can be used to melt nuggets of gold and copper and silver. Obviously you don't need to reach 3000degrees, unless you want wolfram arrowheads, haha, so yours can be smaller and less efficient.


But we started off with wood, why not go all out. Let's make conductive wood:


We develop a conductive wood as a new type of structural electromagnetic 
interference (EMI) shielding material with combined load-bearing function via 
delignification and subsequent in situ chemical vapor deposition of polypyrrole
(PPy) inside the wood channels.

The process is a bit more arduous, as it involves vapor deposition of polypyrrole, and that would need to be painstakingly extracted from pyrrole in coal tar or perhaps bones, but the end result is a substance with an electrical conductivity (39 S/m) similar to that of Aluminium.

Once you have conductors, generating an electric current through your conductor is academic (i.e. easy, not a REAL engineering challenge), as any sort of rotary motion can be harnessed into electricity (wind, waterwheels, innocent unicorns harnessed to a turnwheel): enter image description here

But, since we're having fun with trees, let's stick to our pattern. Turns out you can generate electricity from trees, haha. This works essentially as a semi-natural wind turbine:

Certain leaf structures are capable to convert mechanical forces applied at the leaf surface into electrical energy, because of the specific composition that most plant leaves naturally provide. In detail, the leaf is able to gather electric charges on its surface due to a process called contact electrification. These charges are then immediately transmitted into the inner plant tissue. The plant tissue acts similar to a "cable" and transports the generated electricity to other parts of the plant. Hence, by simply connecting a "plug" to the plant stem, the electricity generated can be harvested and used to power electronic devices. IIT's researchers show that the voltage generated by a single leaf may reach to more than 150 Volts, enough to simultaneously power 100 LED light bulbs each time the leaf is touched.


The cool thing about it is you can have ironwood weapons and have Elven children have a ritual of "decorating trees" -- running conductive vines or thin metal wires up the most promising (sacred) trees, and your heroes can also get a glance at the blinding sun-powered crucible. Even better, at night part of the forest can literally light up.

  • $\begingroup$ Interestng, conductive wood, learned somethig today. But what about electricity, how do they make it? Eves is just placehoder for any brain hands creatures, as side note. Creatures do not have to stick to initial tech, after they reached the objectives and thus firmly embarking themselfes on track of tecnology development. After reaching objectives they cleary can pick anything, what's more convinient for them. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 5:14
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg, here you go, tree generators :D $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 23 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, the cool thing about it is you can have ironwood weapons and have Elven children have a ritual of "decorating trees" -- running conductive vines or thin metal wires up the most promising (sacred) trees, and your heroes can also get a glance at the blinding sun-powered crucible. Even better, at night part of the forest can literally light up. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 23 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ yeah, combined with Mike Serfas part, which also eves tinted - we need Tolkien V2.0 - could be a cool techno steampunk journey to the east or brotherhood of spark gap - goal melt the ring, lol $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ Gods of chaos do like you, out of 3 reaching 5/10 technogods score, you get the bounty, even when u do not need it that much, lol. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 26 at 9:54

Frame Challenge: Nobody is Perfect

You are over complicating the problem here. The solution is not technological, but sociological. The issue with the question when taken literally is that the burning of wood, coal, etc is an offense to the Elven god, not that it is impossible. However, you are assuming that 100% of sentient beings on your planet would never choose to offend this god.

In reality, there are probably many different elven cults with many different interpretations of divine law. Some may say, "you may burn nothing" while others say "burn no wood" or "burn no thing made of that which was once alive". So, there will probably be those tribes of elves who will be permissive enough to to allow the smelting of metals through traditional means. Especially in Elven pre-history when communication is too poor to maintain a homogenous creed. Taken a step further, even if no society of elves as a whole permits it, there will still be a few random pahiyas who through ignorance or defiance break divine law.

Then at some point thereafter, the elven god or an army of elven crusaders comes along and smites these sinners. So, as your society homogenizes moving forward, no society of elf smelts by fire again, but they do not need to. What was left behind by the suppressed sinners would be the tools and materials that the more pious elves could use to make clean energy.

You can take this even a step further and try to handwave the issue by saying that all elves know in their hearts at birth not to make a fire, and no elf is ever born a psychopath in respect to this genetic sense of morality... but what about humans, goblins, gnomes, etc? Since your setting includes elves, I'd assume there are other races who simply do not worship the elven god whom they can trade with to get you as far as you need to go until they can get to eletrolisis.

Addressing the Spirit of the Question

If you want to look at this like a chicken and the egg problem, it is quite simple: before there were chickens or eggs, there were dinosaurs, and before dinosaurs, there were fish, and before fish there were primitive animals who reproduced assexually by a proccess called budding. This process of budding allowed genetic drift to happen enough to eventually evolve into sexual reproduction which eventually led to chickens who have eggs, but no budding.

So, what does this have to do with your elves? Biological and Technological and evolution both follow the path of simple things paving the way to more complex things. Since burning things is simple and electrolysis relies on a complex web of prerequisites, it's inconceivable that a single technological jump would go from a world with no metal or electrolysis smelting to someone accidentally discovering both in tandem. This is because electrolysis is not actually 1 technology, but a LOT of technologies used together to do 1 thing.

Instead of cutting out fire as part of technology's evolution, consider that there was once a niche where fire made since, and that that niche has since disappeared. Basically rendering fire an extinct technology rather than one that has never existed. If your elves are limited by religion, then somewhere in the past this religion did not apply, if smart cats are limited by fear of fire, then somewhere in the past one cat got over his fears to harness its power. If an aquatic people can't make fire underwater, then someone in the past learned to climb up onto land and make fires by the shore line.

Basically, unless you already have people tinkering with metal on a regular basis, they will never discover its electrical properties to do fireless smelting.

  • $\begingroup$ elves are somewhat a placeholder shorthand for sentient beings. it is not that I expect them strictly follow some god-given rules. You probably read the short version of the question, provided by Innovine, it is my guess, but the section "spirit of the question" probably would clarify things for you. it is not an investigation of social structure and whatever, but of the way to do 2 things in earth condition - get some metals and get electrictity. Not burning is only because we do know how it was done with burning, it is written in history books, and it would be a question to history.se. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ in a different situation all u wrote is good and correct, have to note that as well, it just framechallenge for a different question $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg My main point is that conditions in the past and statistical outliers allow for fire even if they are not generally allowed today. I've revised my answer to address how this relates to the spirit of the question more clearly. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Mar 23 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ Surely someone should decide that burning the desert-dried mummies of fellow elves does not count as "easy fire". If you think it's so easy, you try sticking them with one of these metal-free starter spears! I anticipate their opponents might dwindle in number over time. $\endgroup$ – Mike Serfas Mar 23 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ I understand what u say, your thoughts are clear and well expressed, not like mine's, lol. U like probalistic approach, I may guess, so it should be not impossible out of many cases one case where they didn't used fire, for no speciefic reason - they just didn't need it as an example, or in contrary to yours "there was once a niche where" they could not get fire to work, but it didn't stop them, they managed go trough that period and now use all sorts of tech and how they did manage out of that difficult situation that is usual question which people ask. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 18:29

Start at water wheels and work up towards hydro electric dams. First they can harness the raw rotational power into tools like trip hammers for metalworking as well as agricultural uses. Later they can develop (more efficiently rotating) turbines and electromagnetic generators that harness the rotational energy of the wheel and convert it to electricity via magnets and wires.

Water wheels were still in commercial use well into the 20th century but they are no longer in common use. Uses included milling flour in gristmills, grinding wood into pulp for papermaking, hammering wrought iron, machining, ore crushing and pounding fibre for use in the manufacture of cloth.

In the mid to late 18th century John Smeaton's scientific investigation of the water wheel led to significant increases in efficiency supplying much needed power for the Industrial Revolution.

I'm guessing that your elves care that hydro power systems are very environmentally friendly technologies, as the most major impacts are flooding in the upstream reservoir area and reduction of flow downstream. However, the upper lake creation can be very useful for fresh water storage and stocking fish . Or they can make smaller dams, or wheels along big rivers that don't alter natural flows of water as much. Hydro power is also much easier to achieve than solar power, with rudimentary tools and materials.

Working softer metals like copper is possible without open flames or forges. Perhaps once their hydro power is more advanced, they could consider electric arc furnaces to smelt harder metals like iron - but it can cause sparks and flames during the process, so it depends on how strict your fire rules are. It's less like generating fire and more like generating lightning and running high currents through the metal to heat them to and beyond melting points. EAFs are also great for recycling metals, so they are also the more eco-friendly option.

Hope this helps your ideas!

  • $\begingroup$ rules are quite lax, no easy fire, arc furnaces all well. where u suggest taking the metals for an electric generator? $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 21 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ copper wires can be crafted by hand hammer, it would just be very tedious $\endgroup$ – Koon W Mar 21 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ strong magnets would be harder to make. they may be able to start with natural magnets, then weak manufactured ones, and build their way up to modern levels $\endgroup$ – Koon W Mar 21 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ is copper so easily laying around in nature, so one can just pick it and use? yes, natural magnets and just picking things is what Zeiss Ikon answer is about. At any rate thanks for the answer, every bit counts) $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 21 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg Native (lying around in a solid metal form) copper exists, but you would be scouring a large continent to get enough to build a generator capable of creating a useful arc. And that is assuming said continent never had humans on it. humans quickly strip surface deposits. Note also the huge losses wooden water wheels have, becasue wood on wood makes for a high friction joint. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 22 at 4:21

Harry Harrison's West of Eden had this, the lizards didn't use fire at all and were about age of sail technology.

Going along the bio route, breed animal or plants or fungus that contains the necessary concentrations of chemicals to leech out impurities or to make malleable....

  • $\begingroup$ There also an electricity part, how is it solved? $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ Anthill magnets and copper made purified and worked through the chemicals excretions. Or fireflies. $\endgroup$ – Allan Mar 23 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ have the ants have copper in them and they traverse the anthill in a spiral, set in a proper environment ants are constantly in motion along this route. $\endgroup$ – Allan Mar 23 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amitermes_meridionalis $\endgroup$ – Allan Mar 23 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ no handwavium. it is not a defining setting to achieve a result, but thinking about methods which suit a wide variety of setting and allow to get desired results in any of those. more universal methods are, higher the tehnogod score. earth conditions time-traveler got into 10000bc and had nothing - need to restart civilization and build Atlantis to speedrun to the center of the galaxy and back to get into his time. he looks into some answer and has a gotcha moment and with work and sweat succeeds. or whatever situation some author may imagine. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 16:35

As SirTain said, you need a heat source to work at least some of the metals. A stable, active volcano would get you away form needing fire, so he's solved a critical part of the puzzle. EDIT: Heat is really a non-negotiable part of the supply chain of technologies. If not the first step, then certainly a very, very early one. Why do you need heat? Some metals can be worked by hand hammering, certainly. Stronger metals and alloys cannot. Also, when you get to the point of electrical generation by whatever means, if you are to carry any large amount of current, you need larger, heavier wire. trying to join up 27 nuggets of copper into a single length of 8 gauge wire (required by modern code to carry 220 volt 50 amp to your electric stove) is going to be unreliable and dangerous, have weak spots that can break or separate or even arc in a way to burn down your house. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin or other metals and you cant work it without melting the separate metals together to blend them. You don't get bronze without heat.

So how to get the heat? I like the active volcano solution myself, but that is not the only way to go. Wood and therefore charcoal are out. Methane might work, but it may be difficult to get in sufficient quantities at first to maintain a hot fire burning continuously enough for metalworking. Oil that is close to the surface might be another method depending on whether the gods could loosen up on the dogma and allow fossil fuels. You can make a forge fired by oil fairly easily. Coal forges are certainly possible but are hard to get started burning. Coal has only been used as a forge fuel in the last few hundred years. You have to build a small fire of wood in order to get the coal started, but once you get it going with enough forced air it works really well.

You might give yourself an out with the gods by declaring that fire from formerly living things forbidden to all but a certain part of the clergy. That part of the clergy would become the Holy Metalsmiths until such time as you get to the point of Electrical generation. They could be under strictures that only allow them to make fires with deadfall, or branches that have fallen from the tree naturally , or even branches that have been trimmed to promote the health of the tree, but not for the initial purpose of burning. Add to that fuels like dried corn. Feed corn can also be used as a forge fuel (I use it in my forge often) The rationale would be that corn is fuel for the people and thus can be fuel for the fires needed by the Holy Metalsmiths.

Next, you will need metal sources fairly close to the surface. Tin, Copper, Gold, Silver, and Lead. Copper, Tin, Nickel, and Zinc. can be melted together to make bronze. Here is a link to examples of Native Metals, metals found in pure states in nature with little to no refining necessary : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_metal

Use sand casting methods and you can make tools fairly easily. I'm currently learning to blacksmith and one of the things I come across is the whole "Make a tool, so you can make another tool, so you can make something' problem. Bronze is easy to work so it's a great first tool metal.

Next you are going need Iron at some point. There is a limit to what bronze can do. Your first iron will probably have to come from meteorites because what you find mostly around here is just the oxides that will have to be refined and smelted. Meteorites are actually Metallic iron and useful from the outset. You could be generous and have meteor strikes be fairly common. Steel, though, would be the eventual goal. Introduce carbon into the molten iron, or a number of other metals and you get some very nice and extremely tough alloys.

I mention this because one thing you are going to need is Bearings for your generators. Assuming you have already puzzled out the other metals, how to do the windings and such, your generators are going to have to spin at relatively high RPM. You need something very tough if you want any reliability. Bronze is a good start, but you will want to go beyond that. Steel makes better bearings.

I'm keeping my thinking to using rotational energy for electrical generation. There are many ways you can do hydroelectric power, wind power and so on. you don't have to burn fossil fuels to create steam to push a turbine. Some answers have brought up batteries. They will work, but DC current has a much shorter range for transmission across distances. Batteries might work for an intermediate step though.

Now, once you have electricity, metalworking gets a lot easier. Get the high amounts of current and you can create induction forges! No fire required. An induction forge can actually get steel to melting point very very fast as compared to other methods like propane forges and charcoal or coal.

So your sequence goes from finding your metals, to adding heat to create better alloys and tools to make extracting metals faster and more efficient, to finding ways to acquire tougher materials and to create better precision tools, to building Generators and then having the luxury of having energy and heat distributed far and wide. Please forgive the heavy edits to this answer but I hope this makes things more clear.

  • $\begingroup$ before u can work with metals, u need to get them first. if we resort for gold, which is not required, then no so much heat is required at the start. once u bootstrapped things, u can get to blast furnaces and all that with magic of sparks and electricity, build up your production muscles using conventional tech. knowledge is not restricted from the very beginning so no need to repeat history - it needs to make the very first step - the question is how $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 20 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ Well, Panning for gold is well established, if low yield. There are other metals you could have in shallow deposits. I'll add a link in my answer that covers a lot of that an should give you some ideas $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Mar 23 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ OK, I re-read a handful of times and I think I see where you are trying to get to. the initial heat source really is non-negotiable. Regardless of the availability of metals, you can't work them without heat. The few that you can aren't strong enough to do everything you need to generate electricity. even metals like copper can't be pulled into wire directly from it's raw natural state because you would have weak spots, inconsistencies and so on unless you heat it enough to become a solid mass before working. @MolbOrg $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Mar 23 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ even metal powder or flakes can be used to produce electricity - in that same form. But, I didn't say heat source is prohibited, sure at some point, u have to use proper heating technologies this or another way - but to begin with friction can be an option or something else. question is - how do u get something from having nothing, and not doing exactly the same thing which is described in history books, specifically in their fire coal aspect, while having it(wood coal etc), if you need it for your solution, just do not burn it. Nice wiki link about native metals $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ Volcanos may be less trouble than you think. Visitors to Hawaii routinely get close to lava flows around Kiluea and that is plenty hot enough for bronze $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Mar 23 at 19:30

Well, if the ability to channel sunlight is availiable, then plant energy, or using glucose as a form of energy. Channeling the sun can be explained with crystals being used as initial lenses, which can melt glass to make better lenses. These lenses then could be used in telescopic formation to melt rock to make metal tools, wires, and computers. The computers could be used to genetically engineer better plants that produce more fruit which of course can be used to eat and then biofuel.


Step 1: Gather gold. You're going to need a fair amount.

Step 2: Hammer it into gold foil. We need large sheets of it, this is going to be a lot of work.

Step 3: Flat surfaces. Very carefully finished wood should be good enough.

Step 4: Assemble--we have all the components of a solar furnace. It won't be nearly as efficient as it would be with better mirrors

Obviously, you won't have enough gold to do a lot, but once you have the solar furnace you can use it to refine more common metals to build more.

Thinking some more on this--I was figuring someone would have to keep tending it for sun tracking but now I think that once you have it operational you can build an automatic sun tracker. Piping just left and right of the furnace, a closed system that pushes something if there is a pressure differential. This can be used to trigger a valve to use water flow to turn the furnace ever so slowly. The response time is slow so it will oscillate a bit around the ideal aim but will always be close.

  • $\begingroup$ And electricity part - how in this setup? $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 22 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg Going from metal to electricity is easy--waterwheels. The hard part is refining metals in the first place without fire and I'm showing how to do that. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 22 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ Waterwheel is source of mechanical work. Source mechanical work usually isn't considered to be a problem with living creatures, as they can move. But for a way to convert mechanical work to electricity - there is more than few ways. So which is it in your case? $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 22 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ Once you have metal you can make a generator. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Mar 23 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ there are many generator types which one u think is the best or which one is of your liking $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 16:38

Fire needs ice!

All the obvious easy has been named: grass, methane, generators of native metal. But the Great God PITA cannot possibly be dissatisfied with a plan to make fire from ice!

One person can make a camera lens from ice in 5 hours and 5 tries People use such lenses to start fires. Ice is a reliable material for building on massive scale - there are hotels made of it all over the world.

There are many orders and degrees of the Sacred Lens, each with its own uniforms and rituals.

  • The Guardians of the Lens, who man the wooden siege towers, ropes, and pulleys that guide the twenty-yard structure of ice in its daily tracking of the Sun, while ensuring that no part is ever left unsupported and vulnerable.
  • The mighty Tuggers, who pull the legs of that siege equipment along its Track of Ice.
  • The diligent Tracklayers, who so carefully drop ice water to shape a Track as smooth, slippery and clear as can only be found in our world by investigating a water leak in an unheated basement.
  • The revered Shapers, with their understanding of optic mathematics, who use their moist and freezing hands to tend the surface of the Lens itself, staring through filters of tinted ice at the Terrible Bright, from which all elves look away, to monitor the progress of their efforts.
  • Above them all, the Astrologer, ceaselessly tracking the Sun and calling out the minutes of arc, to which Guardian, Tugger, and even Shaper must pay heed as they maintain the Iceforge throughout the day.
  • But night does not bring inactivity - for each night the Tenders of the Forge must build the Igloo, a massive dome of ice that must be clear as the Lens itself, and in fact influences its focus. The clear sides of the Igloo, the breach in its dome from which all heat must escape, the myriad flues from which it takes in air about its bottom, even the scorched charcoal Flue that rises starkly so high above it - all must be perfect, or it will collapse and fall and take the day's work with it.

They have melted much silver and gold, and copper to beat them on - the craftsmen have made many immense mirrors shipped south for mundane work. They power the hearths of southern lands where base metals are purified and the curse of iron and steel cuts across the lands. But what elf would compare them to the pure and perfect Lens, which was used to bring the power of fire, for all its flaws, to their race, and which continues to be the foremost focus of PITA worship throughout the ages long after any industrial need for its powers has been supplanted by its own success?

Electricity from stench!

It has been pointed out that the Scriptures of PITA did associate the origin of fire with that of electricity. In the North this is often minimized, as a simple dynamo of copper and iron is not hard to make, once metal can be purified. (Understanding self-induction is quite another matter) This can be done at demonstration or industrial scale.

Though the Ancestors would have condemned the idea (and its speaker), ecclesiastic discussions now acknowledge that this scripture may have referred to the abominable pursuits of the Southern Continent, whose citizens, deprived of access to the ice, adopted a different approach. As devotees of the demon Flatus, they seized upon a line in the Scripture of Half-Potentials that says "S + 2e −⟶ S2− -0.47627".

Along the pilgrimage route of the Via Odorosa, where the accumulated filth of ancient ages has been left to settle in a vast cavern underground, they installed conduits of leather and beeswax plaited with leaves and twine. They concentrated the stench into bladders (of mighty beasts), sacrificed small creatures in the poisoned air to remove the last traces of oxygen, purified the hydrogen sulfide through the oils of noisome herbs, and finally raised its pH to the sulfide in waters fetched from Lake Natron. Meanwhile, copper ores were dug and mixed with the harshly acidic waters of natural caverns to leach and dissolve the copper, which was neutralized with Natron water and dried.

The slurry of sulfide and the slurry of copper salt were used to produce the Full Cell, which deposited copper and sulfur on their respective electrodes. The sulfur was used to cast great ceremonial torches for the Flatus temple, while the Tears of Copper were in time no longer given directly as ornaments to pilgrims of the Odorosa, but accumulated by the priests to make a dynamo comparable to that of the distant North.

  • $\begingroup$ Good funny answer, lol; Builders of great pyramids are looking at u with satisfaction. But hey, where is the electricity. On one hand if they restore metals with heat as steady flow, then not neccessarly a big deal, excess of metals definetly helps in thatelectricity making. Elves are just placeholder for any creatures. But nice story seed, cold be easy to spin in intersting and complex setting and story, as they have technological incentives to spread and exchange $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 22 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ Electricity - after reading the question, and reading the answer, who, myself included, could remember a little thing like electricity? Let's see what I can do... $\endgroup$ – Mike Serfas Mar 22 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ "sacrificed small creatures in the poisoned air to remove the last traces of oxygen" - yup, clearly noob-god didn't see that coming, eh, but he deserves that, lol. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 23 at 14:02

How about using nuclear heat instead of chemical?

There have been natural nuclear fission reactors if the conditions are right...

And with enough knowledge, anyone getting access to the right location and materials can make one themselves...

  • $\begingroup$ Heat is not a problem, so as mechanical work. But okay that is a bit different from others, and has certain potencial, but all the eforts of first step per serring are about getting metals and electricity and if u can use nuclear for that it may be interesting. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Mar 25 at 0:57

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