9
$\begingroup$

I am playing a campaign where my character (with the help of multiple experienced craftsmen and an artificer) is essentially working to bring about an industrial revolution to a world where such technology is very early (around 2 or 3 centuries). The DM has allowed this on the condition that everything the character comes up with could be feasibly made in the late 15th century (and allowing me to push the boundaries of what would actually "work" due to not actually being able to build and test my creations IRL).

So far I have worked out some basic engines using hot bulbs connected to furnaces, but that won’t work for more advanced engines, so I need to come up with an alternative to gasoline or any crude oil products, with resources that could be collected in the 14/1500’s (or with simple industrial technology).

I am looking for fuels for vehicles, specifically cars and planes - the fuel would be used as a more portable source of energy for engines than hauling coal or wood.

$\endgroup$
8
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ It seems like a steam engine would be a logical first step in your early industrial revolution. It worked well to kick off the real one. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 22 at 23:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Many things can be done, but in real life they can be only a "proof of concept" or "toy for the king". Producing (and/or delivering) alternative fuels (liquid/gaseous) in 15th century would be prohibitively expensive if you want to have any positive economic impact. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 23 at 0:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Your summary and body are contradictory. Do you want an industrial revolution (which needs only wood-burning steam engines)? Or do you want automobiles (only reason you would specifically need a gasoline substitute)? $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jul 23 at 0:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Small frame challenge. I know your question relates specifically to internal combustion engines. But there's an alternative technology that was developed early in the Industrial revolution which would be highly useful at least for static power production on an industrial scale and in some limited circumstances for transport (ship or rail). Its called the STIRLING engine. Look up its history and what it can do. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Jul 23 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Mon Thanks for the suggestion of Stirling engines. I forgot they exist, but they would be really good for a cheaper alternative to the current engines I have. $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 1:39

13 Answers 13

30
$\begingroup$

Alcohol works perfectly well - indeed, it's arguably better because it allows higher compression without the need for a bunch of octane-boosting additives. Model T Fords and other early cars will run on it, if you take care to replace a few parts like gaskets and carb floats that might be adversely affected.

Likewise various forms of biodiesel, including used cooking oil, will run in diesel engines with at most fairly minor adjustments.

$\endgroup$
6
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I'm from Brazil and we have been using ethanol as car fuel since the 70s, either on its own (as 95% ethanol) or as octane booster in gasoline. Calorific power is less than gasoline, but it could be adequately handwaved by saying that the aircrafts evolved to have ethanol as fuel $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 12:06
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In terms of aircraft engines, if ethanol was more available than gasoline in the early days, they'd evolve higher compression, which gets more power to weight from the engine. Yes, you'd need bigger tanks, but that's just trading off range vs. payload, like usual. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 23 at 13:49
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @JohnO Distillation as a general technique is incredibly old, old enough that the record is primarily archaeological rather than written. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distillation In terms of alcohol distillation, the Wikipedia article specifically mentions ethanol as being widely known among European chemists by the end of the 13th century, and fractional distillation was also developed around that time. So late 15th is easy-peasy. $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 17:39
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Mythbusters just filled up a modern car with moonshine and it worked without any modifications mythresults.com/…. $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 20:16
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @sevensevens the reason you might need to replace seals and gaskets isn't that it won't work on TV, it's that it won't work in six months time when the alcohol has degraded them. $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 22:22
17
$\begingroup$

Believe it or not, the industrial revolution wasn't built on gasoline and the internal combustion engine. The industrial revolution was built on steam generators — aka external combustion engines — which used (primarily) coal to heat water and create steam pressure to drives pistons. Steam power requires:

  1. A sufficiently concentrated heat source: coal, lots of wood, 'natural' oils in sufficient quantity, etc.
  2. Metallurgy capable of withstanding extremely high pressures

The second is the restricting factor. By the 15th century there was rolled iron and steel plate that could be shaped without a seam, allowing boilers that could withstand significant pressure. Seams, rivets, or other weak points could burst, with catastrophic (and lethal) results. Earlier than that, the available bronze, 'soft' cast iron, and pieced steel were too weak to sustain pressures needed for any significant power generation.

Internal combustion engines need even higher qualities of steel to contain the continuous heat and explosive pressures involved...

I'm not sure how you're going to bring 15th century metallurgy into 2nd-3rd century history. Smelting steel requires temperatures that were pragmatically inaccessible before the first millennium (usually achieved later by pouring copious amounts of coal into specially constructed furnaces). But as they say, imagination is more important than knowledge...

$\endgroup$
8
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "extremely high pressures" 2-5-10 bars called extreamly high those days? Do not mix overall robustness and forces involved and pressure alone, mix it with size - "they have to be able to build sufficiently big and sufficiently robust boilers" $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 23 at 7:17
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Most steam locomotives and ships used riveted boilers made from plate steel without blowing up all the time. If the plates and rivets are thick enough, they can withstand the pressures involved without problems. $\endgroup$
    – arne
    Jul 23 at 8:42
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Smelting steel is not hard per se - you just have to build a furnace fired with coke. Technically this would have been entirely possible in the 15th century, but the research just hadn't been done yet. $\endgroup$
    – arne
    Jul 23 at 8:45
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @arne there is some evidence that Cistercian monks may have been doing something like that prior to 1536 at which point they got shut down by Henry VIII. discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/henrys-big-mistake $\endgroup$
    – amay
    Jul 23 at 9:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @TedWrigley lower pressure means less efficiency, but it allows bootstrapping the industry. The early Newcomen engines worked between atmospheric pressure and partial vacuum only, but it already offered advantages over oxen. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jul 24 at 16:53
11
$\begingroup$

Wood

An interesting example of fuel for cars is wood - during periods of fuel scarcity, for example during WW2, many ICE vehicles were modified to run on wood gas by adding a relatively simple gasifier device, which allowed the modified cars and tractors to run on firewood. It's much less convenient than gas, but it's possible, as illustrated by more than half a million vehicles that did so.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

There are internal combustion engines that use gaseous fuels: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_engine . A common real-world example of this type of ICE can be found in commercially available tri-fuel generators that run on gasoline, propane, and natural gas. Options for fuel that should be available given the tech era of the 14th/15th century include natural gas, methane, and coal gas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_gas). The last is particularly useful in your scenario since it produces coke as well, which is used as the fuel for the production of steel which you will need for engines and vehicles anyway.

Pure ethanol/methanol is also an option for internal combustion engines, though it requires modifications to the design, and can be produced from fermentation of grain or other agricultural products. [EDIT] However, given the low agricultural tech of that era, there probably isn't enough excess farm output to create significant amounts of fuel from.

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Check out the Pyréolophore, which ran on

"controlled dust explosions" of various experimental fuels. The fuels included mixtures of Lycopodium powder (the spores of Lycopodium, or clubmoss), finely crushed coal dust, and resin.

The Pyréolophore was invented by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and his brother Claude, and a patent was granted in 1807. Nicéphore went on to take the first photograph ever in 1826.

$\endgroup$
3
  • $\begingroup$ Brilliant, a custard (cornflower) powered car/factory, love it. Welcome to worldbuilding, take our wonderful tour and enjoy the facilities at the help center when you've the time (it's quite a lot to digest in one go). $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ @A Rogue Ant.: Flour and similar dusts can explode, sometimes with catastrophic results. See "grain elevator explosion", and notice that it's by no means a problem of the distant past. Here's one that happened just a decade ago: cnn.com/2011/10/31/us/kansas-grain-explosion/index.html $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 23 at 18:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There is quite a history of people trying to use solid powder as an IC fuel. This includes using gunpowder. What there does not seem to be is an example of anybody succeeding. Injecting powder into a combustion chamber without it either failing to detonate due to clumping, or exploding due to partial combustion of clumps causing ignition during injection seem to be the stumbling point. Also, of course, it's extremely difficult to make an injector which will not backfire since the particles will get into the seal of the injector and allow ignition to propagate backwards. $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 23:04
4
$\begingroup$

The combustion engine was developed to use gasoline simply because it was widely available as lamp oil. Later the Diesel engine was developed to use vegetable oil, but it turned out that it could burn a lot of different vegetable, mineral or animal oils.

In your setting the Diesel engine itself might be too sophisticated, but if you accept a lower efficiency you can use any type of combustible oil and many different designs, from piston engines to primitive turbines to steam engines using oil instead of coal.

Considering only vegetable oils you already have a lot of choice, just have a look at this table

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Woodgas is very useable alternative that is relatively easy to make and can run in an internal combustion engine with very few modifications. Here is a link to a video that shows a guy converting a small bike to run on it, complete with an onboard combustion chamber made from a bee hive smoker. This channel has a decent series of videos that explain how to make, store, and use it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=522BaxM0Jnk

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

During WW2 fuel shortages, agricultural vehicles were run on 'wood gas' often produced on the vehicle by a crude gasifier mounted on the vehicle, so that might be something to look into, especially if fired with charcoal as a water gas reactor they are not horrible from an efficiency perspective, and are low pressure devices that can feed an IC engine.

Precision in manufacturing is going to be your big problem with internal combustion (That and peak pressure), the early Newcomen atmospheric engines (1712) for example had piston clearances measured in significant fractions of an inch which is marginal in an atmospheric engine pumping a tin mine, but is not going to fly in an aero engine.

The steam engine as kicking off the industrial revolution is only actually sort of true, it was initially water power far more then steam that did it.

Public (and especially, goods) transport was far more rail then road up until at least post WW1, and rail works just fine burning wood or coal. I would pass on aircraft until your metallurgy takes some huge leaps, but steam powered ships are very much on, and a steamer Vs sailing ships is no kind of contest at all simply because the steamer does not have to consider the weather in quite the same way.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ Surprisingly, the last generation of sailing vessels were capable of out-competing the steam ships until about 1914 (the war cut off the natural end of the competition). $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Jul 25 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ And then some bugger came up with the compound steam engine, and the screw propeller, triple expansion with the condenser under vacuum finally did for the tea clipper. Vessels operating mostly under sail did however hang around way into the diesel age, low value, non perishable cargos, like say timber made the capital cost of a semi diesel big enough for passage making somewhat hard to justify, never mind the fuel costs (Lots of small ones for getting in and out of harbour however). $\endgroup$
    – Dan Mills
    Jul 25 at 20:33
3
$\begingroup$

Diesel Engines

Well before your time period people had developed a fire-starting tool called a "fire piston". It was a tube with an air-tight piston. You put kindling or some other flammable material in it, put in the piston, and rapidly pushed the piston, compressing the air. The air gets hot enough to burn your kindling, and you use that to light your fire. It was small, portable, and very useful.

Rudolf Diesel realized that the same principle could be used for an engine: If you inject something flammable into the tube while it was highly compressed, it would burn, heat up the air, and force the piston out with a strong force that could be used to do work. While we associate Diesel engines today with kerosene (a petroleum product) Diesel's original intent was to use vegetable oil as the fuel.

In the 1500's, Europe had gunpowder and cannon. It is not inconceivable that a cannoneer or arquebusier may have witnessed an accident involving a clogged touchhole and a tight ramrod. Gunpower was put in the cannon/arquebus, and the ramrod was rammed home as normal, but because the cannon barrel was air-tight because of the clogged touchhole and tight ramrod, the air heated up and ignited the gunpower. The ramrod shot out, killing the cannoneer using it.

More likely, it took the hand off the arquebusier, since the force needed to ram home an air-tight piston 3 inches in diameter to a compression ratio of 15:1 would be about 1500 pounds. For an arquebus with a 1/2" bore, it would only be about 50 pounds.

If you take that cannon, connect the ramrod to a crank on a fly-wheel so it can move but is confined to being in the barrel, and provide a way to let out exhaust gasses (holes drilled into the barrel near the open end, exposed when the piston is near "bottom dead center") and in fresh air (a valved bellows near the closed end, powered by the fly-wheel), and a way to squirt in the fuel (a small piston-pump pushing olive oil through the touchhole), you have a Diesel engine, similar to Rudolf Diesel's early versions.

It could be done in 1500. If you gave Leonardo da Vinci a fire piston and said "build me a vehicle powered by something like this", you may very well have had meticulously-drawn plans within a decade.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ I see that you posted your answer while I was writing mine. You beat me on the Diesel reference by a bit. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Jul 24 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ I actually ended up incorperating fire tubes into my enigne design, but I used them as a makeshift sparkplug rather than as the engine itself. I used four of them in a cross pattern to power a larger, main piston, I also connected the fire pistons with tubes so one igniting would set the others off, to ensure fuel in all of the pistons ignited to power the main piston. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 23:27
2
$\begingroup$

The Brayton Cycle (best known as the working principle of the jet engine) potentially lends itself to solid fuel because it allows continuous combustion.

If you look at a jet engine you'll see (1) a big air compressor at the front, (2) a continuous fire in the combustion chamber, which adds energy to the compressed air, but crucially, no further increase in pressure(*), only an increase in volume (aka isobaric expansion), and (3) a way of recovering enough energy in a turbine to drive the compressor.

(*) If the combustion stage does add pressure, the compressor stops working efficiently : this is called a "compressor stall", so the art of running a Brayton engine is to stay in the sweet spot between "flameout" and "compressor stall" which was a real problem for WW2 jet pilots, requiring careful manual throttle control especially on takeoff.

Any energy left over can be used as you want - thrust in the rapidly moving hot exhaust in an aircraft (or bizarrely, ship!), or use a bigger turbine at (3) and use its excess shaft power to drive a propeller, mill, pump, generator or whatever.

enter image description here (photo of the Lucy Ashton, built 1887, converted from steam to jet power 1951)

Hypothetically, because of the continuous combustion stage, you could apply solid fuel such as wood, coal or even peat. The latter was developed in Caithness, Scotland in the 1950s, alongside sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors.

If you don't have the machining ability to create sufficiently efficient fan or centrifugal compressor and turbine, these can be implemented as piston and cylinder, as per George Brayton's original Ready Motor though this used gas or oil as fuel.

The fast reactors were more successful... I can find very little information on this scheme or the reasons for its failure : possibly the abrasive nature of ash content in the exhaust caused problems for the turbine; it would certainly be problematic for piston wear.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

I'd imagine that ethanol and acetone (both easily acquired through the fermentation process) would be able to be used by just about any civilization. Along those lines, you could say that if you had electricity (totally ignoring the existence of electric motors here for argument's sake), you could separate the hydrogen from water and use that as a combustible source too.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

No need to speculate. From the wikipedia article on Whale Oil

The beginning industrial societies used whale oil in oil lamps and to make soap. In the 20th century it was made into margarine. With the commercial development of the petroleum industry and vegetable oils, the use of whale oils declined considerably from its peak in the 19th century into the 20th century. This is said to have saved whales from extinction. In the 21st century, with most countries having banned whaling, the sale and use of whale oil has practically ceased.

A quick reading of the wiki article suggests that there are many different types of whale, and some oils are high in waxes and esters, and other stuff not compatible with running through an engine.

However, if you saw crude petroleum oil as it comes out of the ground, you would despair of using it as a mobile fuel, it would be better suited to surface your road.

However, when the need is there, technology arrives to refine the product. Simple distillation is all that's needed to split crude oil into light and heavy fractions suitable for moving your vehicle and surfacing the road respectively. The same would be done for the fractions in whale oil.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ But could it be used as an engine fuel? I know whale oil was used for lighitng lighting, but in internal combustion engines? $\endgroup$ Jul 24 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ @TheEmperorProtects updated my answer $\endgroup$
    – Neil_UK
    Jul 24 at 5:54
0
$\begingroup$

Several ideas people gave are great. I think "Ted Wrigley" answer pick all the problems with internal combustion motors before the 1500's.

But if you insist on follow the idea that is possible creating such machines far back in time I could to suggest one more option: "biodigesters":

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaerobic_digestion

Anaerobic digestion is widely used as a source of renewable energy. The process produces a biogas, consisting of methane, carbon dioxide, and traces of other 'contaminant' gases.[1] This biogas can be used directly as fuel, in combined heat and power gas engines[9] or upgraded to natural gas-quality biomethane. The nutrient-rich digestate also produced can be used as fertilizer.

I know a guy who products electricity to his small farm using such apparatus.

If you have pigs you are done.

And if want to see how a biodigester works you can ever get a god time watching a classic movie:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max_Beyond_Thunderdome

It is not the best Mad Max but it is a good movie by today freak standards.

The Master/Blaster character(s) is memorable. If you read some old news/political magazines of the 80's/90's you can find mentions to Master/Blaster associated to some politicians.

And there is a vegan version that does not make use of animal dung.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.