So, Suppose for a moment that there is a society on the verge of an industrial revolution.

They live on a super-continent. The continent has a circumference of around 40,000 kilometers (If I recall correctly), and while the interior is almost entirely desert, there are habitable areas on the edge, including a few large forests.

They have plentiful iron ore and limestone, but due to their world's history, very little coal.

What they do have a lot of is crude oil; Even before the industrial revolution, the people invented specialized lamps and stoves that burn crude oil, and their medieval alchemists spent a lot of time working on refining it for better use.

This post provides a pretty good example of the steelmaking process we use here on earth: How would fantasy dwarves produce steel?

coal coke is a very vital part of that operation.

So... How would these people go about making all of the steel they'll need to power their industrial revolution? Can they find a way to substitute crude oil for coal in the above process, or do they need a novel way to mass produce steel? Or, are they forced to rely entirely on charcoal for the process?

  • $\begingroup$ You can turn coal into oil and oil into coal it just takes more coal or oil. Charcoal is also a thing. There are a number of questions on here about this already. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ The Hybrit initiative is a attempt to create fossil-free steel (without the use of coking coal). Instead hydrogen and electricity is used. Not that it would be possible for a pre-industrial society but still a really cool project. $\endgroup$
    – papirtiger
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ Our normal way to make steel is to use coal as both fuel and carbon source for the steel, then burn off the excess carbon (and other impurities). When using a hydrocarbon fuel for heat, you can get away with using a lot less coal, but still need some as ingredient for the steel. use charcoal for that, and the crucible method in that answer down below. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ First paragraph begins with "So...", last paragraph begins with "So...". Does that make this a "so-so question"? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ Steel can be made without using carbon as a reducing agent. Hydrogen can be used instead. A range of other reducing agents could also be used, but are not for financial reasons sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/iron-ore-reduction $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 19:58

3 Answers 3


Petroleum Coke

They need a lot of oil, but you say they have lots of oil. So they can make coke from petroleum, petcoke. Its just a little harder to do but not prohibitively hard. The process would be available prior to large scale steel production, so no bootstrapping problem. Note it does produce a LOT more co2 than using coal, like half as much more by weight, so expect a worse greenhouse effect. You will also be using the oil as fuel so you do need a lot of it. Honestly having that much oil and no coal is not very believable, but that is a different question. If they have several times more oil than what the earth has you will be fine.

Here is an image of the overall process enter image description here

And an Image of how the coker specifically works. enter image description here

Earlier systems were even simpler.

As a side effect they will have a lot of naphtha, diesel, gasoline, and methane, so they may be using that for steam engine fuel.

Alternatively you can make coke from wood but you need an absurd amount of wood, like more than most countries can produce sustainably. Like amore forest than every other land biome combined.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The amount of oil you need is dependent on the amount of steel you produce. Unlikely this civilization will be as steel dependent as we are. More likely, with alchemists concentrating on oil, they will have plastics instead. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ ...If I recall correctly, oil burns a little cleaner than coal... would that offset the extra emissions from the coke process? $\endgroup$
    – Globin347
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 4:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Globin347 as far as greenhouse emissions go oil is no cleaner than coal $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 12:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond plastic can't replace steel in most of its usages, most steel (70+%) is used for construction, machinery, and vehicles. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ Note: this process was not invented until the mid-1800s (100+ years into the industrial revolution). So, this contradicts the on the "verge of an industrial revolution" criteria without a certain amount of hand waving. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 21:50

Crucible Steel

The main reason for using coal or coke is that it burns in a way that alloys the iron with carbon. Crude oil does not burn but rather, the vapor coming off of it does, this mean you can not just dunk your iron ore into oil and burn it, because the heat would be above the ore. Nor is there a good way to burn oil under iron ore in a way that will allow an interchange of the pertrol's carbon with the molten iron.

That said, the sealed crucible steels that you see in the classical to high-medieval periods did not melt the ore inside of the coal/charcoal, instead they mix powered ore and charcoal inside of a crucible, then heated the crucible from the outside. The fuel can in this case be anything of sufficient heat including burning oil, and the iron will alloy with the carbon from the charcoal to make your carbon steel.

Normally making iron from just charcoal and a high quality iron ore requires about 50-60 parts charcoal and 2 parts iron ore (by weight) to get 1 part refined steel. So, technically you can make steel using just charcoal, but you would run out of trees very fast trying to mass produce steel this way. By using the crucible method, you only need a small amount charcoal. It takes about ~2-3 parts charcoal to 75 parts iron ore (by weight). And the heat can all be had from what is probably going to be your cheaper source of energy: your oil.

The reason this method was no longer used by the industrial revolution was that it leads to more impurities because impurities normally flow out of a bloom as it heats up, or out of the slag vent of a stack furnace whereas a sealed crucible holds them all together in a way that you need to keep the iron completely molten for a period of time while the impurities separate so they can be broken away. This means you need a bit more labor than a stack furnace to get an inferior steel. Even when you remove the silicate and oxygen impurities with a sealed crucible, the sulfur and phosphorus are harder to deal with. For this you need a hot blast mechanism which negates the point of a sealed crucible.

Here you have a world building choice:

A: Mass produce wootz steel

A dig site in Merv from about 900AD shows us that sealed crucible steel could be produced in large batches by putting many crucibles into a large underground kiln. This method would not only work for your purposes, but also helps prevent fuel waste since underground kilns retain heat so much better than their above ground varitiety. While many people claim that the blast furnace was the reason for the steel boom, the much more important factor was actually the invention of better tools for working steel. Industrial era roller presses, die presses, wire gauges, metal lathes, etc. allowed people to skip the very laborious task of hammering steel into its needed shapes. Add to this a mechanical hammer for breaking the impurited away from your pucks, and you can produce very large amounts of damascus steel with very little charcoal. It won't take a temper as well as industrial era steel; so, don't expect as good of impact/vibration resistance or springiness, but it will still suit a wide array of uses.

B: Substitute coke for charcoal in a stack or bloom furnace.

Before the 1700s, this is how steel was normally smelted. While this would be very bad for your forests over any serious length of time, charcoal can absolutely be used in place of coke for mass producing steel. Traditional tatara furnaces are still used in Japan today to produce batches of steel in excess of 1 ton using only charcoal. The steel produced by these furnaces produces small amounts of high carbon tamahagane as is used in Katana making, and the rest is sold for making a wide range of mass produced carbon steel products such as kitchen knives.

C: Jump forward to a more modern steel production method.

If you want to mass produce industrial era quality steel, you need to do what we do in more modern steel production. 1st begin with crucible steel as described above, but use open crucibles with slag vents that you can hot blast with oxygen until all of the impurities (including the carbon) are removed. This will create a very soft but pure iron. Then in the final stage you add your charcoal to the crucible and seal it up to reintroduce the carbon in the final stage of smelting. This would yield steel that is going to be of a higher quality than the early industrial revolution because you can so much more precisely control for your final carbon content, and it can be made using very little charcoal relying mostly on burning oil.

Another Jump forward solution is to use petcoke as described in John's answer, but this is arguably a harder leap forward since the oil refineries needed to make the stuff are comparatively more complex and difficult to make without an already existing industrial age framework to support its manufacture.

  • $\begingroup$ Coke is used in the smelting of iron ore into pig iron, usually in a blast furnace, crucibles are used to make steel FROM pig iron, Crucibles need already smelted iron to work, using crucibles does not help you mass produce steel without coal. You still need coke to make crucible steel. Also large quantities in this case means enough for the making for swords or armor not enough for a large industrial process. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ @John That is incorrect. Sealed crucibles were used before pig iron was a thing to make steel directly from ore. This results in wootz steel (aka:damascus steel) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wootz_steel $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ Wootz steel is completely useless for industrial steel. it requires a lot of working and can only be made in very small quantities. The OP is looking for industrial steel, not just swords or armor. you need something cast-able or press-able. . $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @John Wootz steel is caste, not pattern welded as previously thought. In recent decades, manuscripts have been found explaining the whole process as used in the medieval period and metallurgical testing has been done on actual swords and recreations to confirm. Also, according to a number of research projects conducted by the US government in the early-mid 1800s wootz patterning was a well known side-effect of sulfur and phosphorus contamination. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ Patterned steel was considered acceptable for most uses accept for railroad struts. For some applications, phosphorus contamination was even considered a good thing. This all means that it would be acceptable for nearly all early industrial revolution purposes since railroads did not come into play until well into the industrial revolution. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 13:54

Prior to using coal as a source of carbon when steel was made, trees used to be used. Logs were added into the molten metal. When the supply of trees could not be sustained coal started to be used.

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    $\begingroup$ How does this solve the problem? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Apr 8, 2021 at 16:52

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