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I'm working on the setting of a society that went directly from coal-powered industrial revolution into "clean" sources of electricity without having a "diesel age" in-between. The reason for this is that the planet they are on has no petroleum whatsoever. I've done a bit of research on this and it seems to be entirely plausible as petroleum is the product of rather idiosyncratic processes in the history of the Earth and it is actually more likely than not for a life-bearing planet to only have coal and natural gas without anything resembling petroleum according to this thread Is there a way to have coal but not oil?.

However, I'm not sure how electronic devices would develop in this world as our modern electronics heavily depend on petroleum-based plastics to act as insulators. Specifically, simply lighting up the streets or running large factory machinery is not an issue but what about things more advanced than that (is microelectronics the right word)?

Without plastic, would it mean that instead glass had to be used for everything, making it so electronic devices always retain a certain degree of bulkiness? Would it even be possible to make computers/computers as advanced as the ones we have today?

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    $\begingroup$ You might need to do some funny handwaving to have a world that has coal, but does not have any petroleum. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Mar 29 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ What is stopping them from making plastics from coal and natural gas? Or, for that matter, from animal fat or vegetable oil? That's how plastics started in real history. (Fun factoid: one of the first semi-mass-produced plastics was galalith, which was made from milk.) (More fun: the first truely mass-produced plastics was bakelite; originally, the phenol and formaldehide feedstocks were made from coal-tar.) In our history, industrial-scale organic chemistry was originally based on coal... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 29 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ Having a world without petroleum but with coal is basically impossible, many forms of coal contain petroleum. More importantly you can turn coal in to petroleum. The same processes that make coal also make petroleum. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 29 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ The issue with electronics is not particularly different from the issue with electrical equipment - particularly, the need for insulators. And making insulators was pretty much solved with the use of fabric and rubber well before the invention of plastics. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 29 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ Can you explain how any research could conclude such a thing? Which planets were surveyed? $\endgroup$ – Robbie Goodwin Mar 31 at 21:07
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Simple answer: you'd make plastic.

Thing is, whilst oil makes life easier when it comes to making useful petrochemicals, you can do pretty much all of the same things from coal once you've worked out the chemistry. This kinda question pops up from time to time, so there are other answers on here that cover the specific issues in more detail, but here's one of mine: Creating a chemical industry from a medieval tech level without petroleum .

You make bakelite from phenol and formaldehyde. Formaldehyde you can make from methanol, which you can make from wood, and the knowledge of how to do that is pretty ancient. Phenol you can make from coal, and indeed it seems likely that the phenol used in the original manufacture of bakelite was of coal origin. Production of phenol was discovered in the real world in 1834... that's post steam, pre-electronics, and quite compatible with your setting.

As your setting advances into the future, other processes for deriving useful chemicals from coal seem likely to be discovered. Creating synthetic fuels from coal was possible in the real world from the early 1900s onwards with coal liquefaction, and modern coal-to-olefins processes will get you pretty much anything you could get out of oil, just more expensive due to the additional processing steps and energy costs.

Basically, when it comes to the point where your civilisation invents electronics, they'll already have most of the same things to hand that we did, and I'd expect it to go much the same way. I'd say the bigger differences would be in the form of things that need economical refined fuels, like commercial jet aviation, and mass use of plastics in modern industry (eg. the last 50 years or so), rather than things like electronics.


Other non-petrochemical (or potentially non-petrochemical) early plastics:

  • natural rubber!
  • shellac comes from the carapaces of certain kinds of beetle. Bakelite was developed to try and find a synthetic replacement for it.
  • celluloid is very flammable, but still useful, and can be made from cotton, nitric acid and ethanol.
  • viscose is chemically processed plant cellulose, which you can turn into cellophane.
  • butadiene for synthetic rubber can be made from coal tar or even grain alcohol. The latter was done by the US and USSR in WW2.

And things you can make from coal:

  • polystyrene originally came from tree sap, but styrene can be made from ethylbenzene which can be found in coal tar.
  • vinyl chloride could be made from coal-tar derived acetylene and used to make PVC.

I don't doubt the list goes on and on.


Also, I'd venture that formations of oil are actually more likely than formations of coal... oil formation requires ocean biomass (eg. lots of phytoplankton) and deep-ocean anoxic conditions. Most of our current CO2 burden will probably end up as oil and oily shales. Coal, on the other hand, requires evolution of something like lignin which is (at least for a little while) indigestible by whatever equivalents you have of bacteria and fungi, and once that digestive trick evolves there will be no more coal formations for the rest of the history of the world.

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    $\begingroup$ How do I upvote again, for that addendum? ;-) $\endgroup$ – PcMan Mar 29 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ There's also casein plastics, made from milk protein. I can recall making casein plastic during high school chemistry class, years ago. Apparently casein was used to make plastic buttons during WW2. $\endgroup$ – Fred Mar 30 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ Consider also gutta-percha, commonly used as an electrical insulator before suitable plastics were known. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutta-percha $\endgroup$ – John Doty Mar 30 at 16:35
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Early electronics didn't depend on plastics of any kind. Sure, Bakelite (phenolic) was used a lot for radio cabinets and such -- but every electronic circuit built before about 1960 could be built on a "breadboard" -- which, originally, was a literal board, a plank of wood used to provide a stable base, with nails or screws driven in for terminal points, and the wires soldered in place. Early wiring was insulated with cotton or linen sheathes.

Electronic components that now incorporate plastics didn't start out that way; the first capacitors were glass jars lined with metal foil, while some later ones were metal plates interleaved with natural mica, resistors can be as simple as a carbon film (I've seen radio circuits where the graphite in a pencil mark served as a resistance), and inductors can be wire insulated with a coating of some kind (including that cotton or linen sheathe) wound on a form.

And this kind of circuitry could be built into a primitive (or not so primitive, but very large and rather slow) computer -- vacuum tubes have no plastics in them (and some sockets don't), and the first electronic computer use vacuum tubes.

In our timeline, components incorporated little plastic (and could be made without any) as recently as the early 1970s. Even integrated circuits can be packaged with ceramics, metals, and glasses -- polymers are used for cost reasons. Circuit boards could be made from wood-derived materials as well (search YouTube for "transparent wood").

Simply put, plastics and petrochemicals are not essential to any level of electronics technology -- merely a convenience and cost saver.

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    $\begingroup$ Breadboards? You were lucky. In my day we made our circuits out of dead bugs. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Mar 29 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ Bakelite is made from phenol and formaldehide, both of which were originally made from coal tar. Petrochemistry displaced coal-based chemistry about half a century after the invention of bakelite. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 29 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ I have an old vacuum tube radio from the thirties, and the guts of it are exactly what you're describing. Mind you, we don't turn it on because it might start a fire, but then again it's 90+ years old. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Mar 29 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ @hetaerism37661 plastics incorporated in components is a post-transistor development, mostly post-integrated circuit. Capacitors as recent as the early 1970s used "condenser paper" as dielectric, and discrete transistors were sold in "can" packages that didn't use plastics. Even ICs can be packaged without plastics (high temperature chips are done that way even today). $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Mar 30 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime you're just too young. One of the earliest circuits I built was #21 from worldradiohistory.com/BOOKSHELF-ARH/Author-Groups/Zarchy/… (not, of course, the PDF version ツ). I literally built it on a wooden board. $\endgroup$ – John Doty Mar 30 at 16:45
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Your question is actually two questions:

How would electronics develop without petroleum?

No big deal at all: instead of petroleumbased plastics, just use bioplastics of which there are far too many for me to list them here. You can basically make plastic out of every living thing if you try hard enough.

How would electronics develop without plastic?

Since you can make plastic without petroleum, you would need another explanation why there is no plastic, but say there is none. Still no big problem, since electrons never used much plastic anyways. The chips themselves are made from silicon, GaN or another non-plastic substrate. The chip casings are currently often made from plastic, but you can use metal instead (as is done e.g. for PC CPUs nowadays).

PCBs are usually made either out of paper or fibre glass which is then bound with some kind of epoxy (which often is a bioplastic). But if you strictly don't want any plastics, that rules out epoxy as well. But that should not be hard to substitute with hardwoods, it would just make soldering harder.

One thing to note here:

Base materials for plastics are omnipresent

There are so many kinds of plastic that can be made from virtually anything. Also they are quite easy to make. So it would be really hard to find a technical reason why there would be no plastic.

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In brief, bioelectrical systems have been around far longer than humans have.

If you have a planet where there was no Carboniferous era - let’s say it was terraformed - then there would be no oil, gas, or coal. People could derive plastic-like materials from cellulose quite easily, though the simple ones are quite fragile. However, a totally alternative route to electronics can be found with Biko electrical systems: Using GM tools to develop GM tools is a feasible route to technological breakthroughs.

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  • $\begingroup$ There's good evidence that petroleum (oil and natural gas) is formed in the mantle, independent of any biological precursor -- and we don't make many (any?) modern plastics from coal tar. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Mar 30 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenic_petroleum_origin "Most serious researchers view the theory as easily debunkable with basic scientific knowledge, often placing it in the realm of pseudoscience or conspiracy theories". $\endgroup$ – Konchog Mar 30 at 11:29
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Maple boiled in wax was a standard insulation technique

E.G. for mounting electrical equipment. Maple was chosen because of its naturally high dielectric strength. The natural water content in the wood was replaced with wax, by boiling the wood in a pan of wax, causing water to boil out and the spaces in the wood were then filled with steam. When the pan was slowly cooled, the steam would collapse into liquid water, and normal atmospheric pressure pushed the wax into the voids.

This could be aided with VPI -- after the water has boiled out, draw a vacuum to vacate the remaining steam; then slowly remove vacuum, allowing the wax to fill the pores, then optionally use pressure to help that along further.

Or asbestos. Really.

It should be noted that such insulating board is NOT non-flammable. If that were desired, use asbestos boards.

"OMG we can't use asbestos, it's DANGEROUS". Stop. Think about fiberglass or rock-wool house insulation. Very fluffy, fibery, and your body itches all over after working with it. That's because, in fact, micro-fibers of that stuff have gotten all over your skin and lungs. Now by contrast, think about a Chevy Corvette with a fiberglass body. You can drive one your whole life and never itch or cough. Because that fiberglass is in a "hard board" form, not fluffy micro-fibers.

Asbestos also came either "fluffy" or "hard-board". People who merely worked around hard-board asbestos (e.g. in electrical facilities) never had a problem... the people who got cancer were on a daily basis, occupationally, for a 20 year career, inhaling the micro-fibers. That meant

  • They worked around fluffy-microfiber insulation (e.g. in a boiler room thus insulated)
  • They worked in asbestos factories making the stuff (including making the hard-board)
  • They did milling or machining operations on hard-board that made a lot of dust

We're talking a workplace where the fibers are just in the air continuously. This exposure had to be daily and occupational (that is your job). Occasional encountersA general repairman making a few drill holes a month on asbestos boards was under no risk of cancer, at least, not from asbestos.

What about using it today? First, cross off "fluffy asbestos insulation" since we have fiberglass and rock-wool for that. But there's no viable replacement for asbestos hard-board. Upside, it's harmless if you can figure out how to manufacture and machine it safely. That's pretty easy today, since modern companies and workers understand and respect PPE, and most of the work is done by robots anyway.

The only reason we don't is the moral panic about asbestos anything, and the unwillingness of private insurers to touch it with a 10-foot pole. However, if there was an industrial necessity to use it, the problems could be overcome quite easily.

Semiconductors would stay ceramic

If you look at early ICs, there's no plastic in 'em. The DIP package is made of 2 layers of ceramic plate, with a metal lid soldered onto it.

This had nothing to do with the density of the IC... so I see no reason this method couldn't simply continue onward. They went to plastic IC bodies because they were cheaper.

You have to figure where to draw the line on plastics.

Plastics are a huge variety of materials made out of varieties of carbon-chain atoms. It isn't necessary to source them from petroleum, but it they get more expensive (and rare) if you don't. Fortunately, plastics are so versatile that they will be popular even at 50 times the price, at least for mission-critical applications. (though perhaps things like blenders and PC cases will be metal).

A printed circuit (PC) board is generally made of a [fiber]glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), and the "plastic" in this meaning is some sort of resin, that will likely be a carbon-chain molecule ... i.e. a plastic of some kind.

However, that's about it. Traditional (circa 1970s) electronics simply put these fiberglass boards on (notably metal) stand-offs inside a metal chassis, and that was it!

So, even for powerful microelectronics, great limitation on plastics need not be a hindrance.

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