I looked through some posts discussing worlds without oil. Those posts mainly focus on fuels and transportation. But I realized that the distillation of oil produces lots of organic compounds - ethene, propane, butane, which are all important industrial chemicals.

My question is, without oil (and gas perhaps), how would humanity develop chemistry? Or more specifically, will it be possible? Will it be faster or slower? Is there any alternatives?

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    $\begingroup$ There are lots of kinds of oil. I am covered with a gleaming sheen of my own homebrew oil right now! Do you mean no petrochemical deposits. Is coal gone too? Maybe all used up by the sentients on the planet in the past? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Feb 19, 2022 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ If by oil you mean petroleum, then there is nothing in petroleum which cannot be made from sunflower oil, or rapeseed oil, or olive oil, or suet, or lard or whatever kind of cooking fat is common in your country. (And the proportion of petroleum which is used as a feedstock for the petrochemical industry is low enough that replacing it with purpose grown oily plants is pefectly feasible. Fun fact: we produce more ethanol from vegetable sources to burn in our gasoline engines than what petroleum is used in the chemical industry.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 19, 2022 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ Why doesn’t your world have oil? Does the plot require no oil reserves? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 19, 2022 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ Important to consider even on a planet that hadn't gone through a carboniferous era, abiogenic petroleum is a thing (potentially). $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2022 at 7:06

4 Answers 4


Oil is a very useful substance, but chemistry would certainly still be of immense value even if there was not a drop of oil on Earth. Chemistry is used in some form for most heavy industrial processes from the refining of steel to electroplating.

Of the top 5 chemicals used today all could still be produced. Sulfuric acid production does not use oil and neither does the production of nitrogen or the electrochemical processes that produce caustic soda and bleach. Even propylene and ethylene which are usually produced from oil could be produced from fermentation and oxidation processes without oil.

There are also many other things that can be used to replace oil. The obvious one being coal which would be a good stand in for a number of chemicals normally provided by oil. But even if there was no coal there are many plant based products that could be used as a starting material such as hemp, sunflower and rapeseed oils, timber from which turpentine can be extracted as well as all manner of oils, tars, gums and other chemicals from smoke and condensate from burning organic matter.

Perhaps without oil, gas and coal, the products that currently originate from them would be much more expensive as the alternatives would not be as easily available. So whilst all materials we have today could be produced, their quantity and the financial benefit they represent would be very different. It would be difficult for today’s massive fleets of petrol, diesel, heavy oil and jet fuel guzzling transports to be fueled from plant output.

So it would be a very different world with a very different development trajectory. But chemistry would still be vital.

  • $\begingroup$ You say that sulfuric acid production does not use oil, but the wikipedia article on sulfur says that "Today, almost all elemental sulfur is produced as a byproduct of removing sulfur-containing contaminants from natural gas and petroleum." which seems to go against the sprit of the question. $\endgroup$
    – AKHolland
    Feb 21, 2022 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Well that is a fair point. But it's probably just a convenient source as sulphur for us as it has to be removed from oil and if they didn't use it for something it would just build up as a waste product. Perhaps it would have been better to say that sulphuric acid production does not need to use oil. Elemental sulphur occurs in many volcanic regions and can also be obtained as a by product from the smelting of many metals from their sulphide ores such iron, copper, nickel, lead, cobalt, silver, and zinc among others. Sulphur can also be produced in a myriad of other less well known ways. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Feb 21, 2022 at 19:53

A Bridge To Terebinth Trees

Petroleum was not widely exploited until very recently in history. Chemists did, however, make widespread use of turpentine. Though the memory has been destroyed by modern labelling practices, turpentine is not a distilled petroleum product except by imitation. Rather, it is a distilled product of the turpentine tree, a.k.a. terebinth tree, or more generally, of pine trees.

The instructions for this are quite ancient - Dioscorides (1st century AD) gave a detailed procedure to isolate the spirits of turpentine. These procedures were later adapted to isolate the spirits of wine, which was certainly a practical exercise of chemistry.


without oil (and gas perhaps), how would humanity develop chemistry?

If coal is allowed then sure! To summarize another answer of mine, if you have coal then you've got coal tar and coal gas and phenol and a convenient fuel to drive your industrial revolution, and then you can make pretty much everything.

If you don't have coal then that's a different matter altogether.

See, there's lots you can make out of trees, but the problem is that there's a limited supply of tree biomass and you need an awful lot of refined fuel to drive an industrial revolution. Given the need for wood for ships, wood for charcoal, wood for building, and now wood for chemical feedstocks too you'll find out that it is rather easy to deforest your nation and rather hard to replenish all that biomass.

Chemistry would continue, of course, but once you've caused major ecological damage and run out of fuel for your economy the resulting crash might make it something of a curiosity to the survivors rather than the foundation of a modern society.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 lack of biomass is the primary issue.. chemical processes use a lot. "limited supply of tree biomass" it happened in the 16th-18th century Netherlands.. all forests were cut for fuel. Coal became the primary energy source, but the Netherlands doesn't have much of that.. the import of oil, and later winning gas came to the rescue ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Feb 20, 2022 at 10:23

There is plenty of chemistry that exists without oil. For example the processing of ore into metal, silicon into semiconductors, etc.

It appears you mean could organic chemistry exist without oil? That is, production of plastics / soaps on the large scale and medications on the small scale.

Soaps (carboxylated hydrocarbons) are mostly derived from fats, so that's fine. Detergents (sulphonated hydrocarbons) are derived from mineral oil, but could be derived from fat also.

And there a whole host of bioplastics see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic . The monomers for these plastics would also be useful for general organic synthesis.

As for medications, which are produced in smaller quantities, some are derived from mineral oil components, others are derived from plants. For example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eli_Lilly_and_Company shows an (old) picture of a plantation of Belladona (nightshade) for the production of the medication atropine.


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