I want to have a post apocalyptic world where 21st century tech is unable to be made anymore due to humans using up all the resources on the planet. Since space programs also use computers, there should be no way to get to space either. The problem is that I do not know if it is feasible for the human race to run out of enough raw elements to make consumer electronics. It is acceptable to have some of that tech to still exist, I just want to know if it is feasible or realistic for humans to run out of stuff like copper, gold, etc. I would preferably like the world to be set in 2080, if so possible. I am willing to go up to 2110 if not. There are no sci-fi elements, like aliens and such, except for the wasteland that is earth.

  • $\begingroup$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. $\endgroup$
    – user99723
    Nov 22, 2022 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ I'm just picturing this dirty, old guy wearing goggles going to town on a block of silicon with an itty bitty rasp and a tiny soldering set while giggling to himself. $\endgroup$
    – ShadoCat
    Nov 22, 2022 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ "Since space programs use also use computers..." -- you have a false premise here. It wasn't until the Apollo program that NASA made heavy use of computers; it took the Soviet Union even longer. The Mercury rockets were designed and launched mostly through the use of slide rules. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Nov 24, 2022 at 2:41

5 Answers 5


What does it mean to have depleted resources?

With the exceptions of atmosphere that has sublimated into space and mass converted to energy by nuclear power and bomb testing (and maybe a few other things, but you get my point), every atom of material that started on the planet is still here. Through chemistry, we've manipulated those atoms, but they're all still here. The idea that a point in time could come where a critical material needed for manufacturing electronics was gone is hard to believe. One would only need to start digging up old trash dumps to get access to those materials and fire up chemistry to recycle them.

So, what's missing in a post-apocalyptic world that would prohibit high-tech manufacturing?

  • The supply chain. Most people don't realize just how large and complex the high-tech supply chain is. It's massive. And one of the reasons it's massive is that an honest analysis of the supply chain can't ignore dependent chains. All those raw materials that go into an integrated chip. That go into the machines that make integrated chips. That go into the tools that maintain the machines. That go into the machines that make the clothes of the people who perform the maintenance. That go into gathering, processing, and shipping food that feeds all those maintenance workers. And that was just an infintesimal sliver of the supply chain. That supply chain simply won't exist post-apocalypse.

  • Some chemicals are very hard to handle. During a safety class at my first post-university job, one of the fabrication scientists was reviewing how to manually detect dangerous chemical situations (never trust the automation!). One of those chemicals was hydrogen cyanide, which at that time was used during the integrated circuit manufacturing process. He explained that it smells like almonds — o'course, you're probably dead at that point, so the idea was primarily academic. My point? Post-apocalypse you might not have the ability to handle the dangerous chemicals needed for or produced by high-tech manufacture.

  • As @L.Dutch mentioned (I upvoted his answer, you should too) post-apocalypse you might not even have the ability to build and/or maintain the machines needed for high-tech manufacturing. Remember that supply chain I mentioned? There is a similar "knowledge chain" that's required for those machines to work for any length of time. Scientists, engineers, and technicians from the machine manufacturer down to the machine user and you need all of them. Take too many of them out of the "knowledge chain" and you get the same kind of collapse you see when you disrupt the supply chain.

  • And speaking of chains... there's also the need for electricity (a LOT of it), water (a LOT of it), waste processing (a LOT of it)... But if we ignore everything and only focus on electricity, high-tech manufacturing facilities use their own substations. Their power requirements are enormous. You're post-apocalypse, so let's simply consider running train after train of coal to the local power plant to keep the power going. I live next to train tracks that run eight coal trains, each 2 miles (3.2 km) long, seven days a week. I'm told they supply one power plant in Washington. (And the supply chain... miners, train workers, dock workers... repair/replace trucks, diggers, train cars & engines, track...).

And then there's Mad Max...

You just can't have a post-apocalyptic world without the kind of drama we saw in the Mad Max movies. Oh, it's not the Hollywood flash-bang I'm talking about. It's the sense of lawlessness and chaos. High Tech depends on stable civilizations and stable governments. Why?

As an example, it's a whomping big deal when a fabrication facility shuts down. A small facility can lose a million dollars a day. A big one can loose a million dollars an hour. Planned shutdowns for maintenance are one thing, but the power suddenly shutting off is very much another! The one time I remember it happening, the company literally just sent everyone home. All of us, right down to the janitors. Every possible penny of expense was salvaged while the building support staff worked around the clock to get the power back online. Yup, these facilities have backups after backups after backups — but nothing is ever perfect. If it's that sensitive in the Real World, imagine the problem of keeping one running with twenty cars circiling the facility shooting bullets into it.


While I don't believe you can rationalize the inability to manufacture high-tech due to a lack of resources, I think your real problem would be rationalizing the ability to manufacture high-tech at all. There's so much civilization that high-tech depends on — and post-apocalypse, some or more of that civilization is usually gone.

@AlexP makes a good point: as the size and stability of post-apocalyptic government increases, so does the ability to manufacture high-tech components. Given the inevitable amount of equipment left over after even a classic apocalyptic event, the odds are very good that 1960-1970 grade electronics could be manufactured almost immediately, 1980-1990 grade electronics within a few decades, and 2000-2010 electronics a decade after that. Humans are nothing if not tenacious — and we've decidedly proven that we love our cool gadgets.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the correct answer. You may want to emphasize however that if there is a reasonably large state structure still surviving, and if they absolutely want to, there is no way to prevent them being able to make '486s in about 20 years time. More advanced stuff, it's hard; but '386 and '486 level electronics, any functional state of a decent size can aspire to make it. (And hydrogen cyanide smells like almonds because it is what gives almonds their smell. Yes, almond pits release HCN in tiny or even not so tiny amounts; yes, you can smell it at concentrations well below danger.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 22, 2022 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ Dburn2023 Here in the U.S. Northwest the supply chain is still recovering from the effects of the COVID pandemic and I need only look at how long it took New Orleans to recover from Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 to know that "natural" events can easily disrupt supply chains. However, your comment is very revealing. It appears you're not looking for how to stop high tech per se, but are looking for a way for human society to degrade by natural causes. An Ice Age might do that, as might a sufficient qty of solar flares. @AlexP, any ideas about a "natural apocalypse?" $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 22, 2022 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Dburn2023: "Is it possible or probable for the supply chain to be disrupted without human intervention": every other year or so you hear about some dreaful shortage of hard disks or memory chips or such stuff because there was a flood in Vietnam or a fire in Taiwan. Many essential parts (not only in electronics) are made in only a small number of factories somewhere in the world and when one of those factories gets put of order by some accident the supply chain gets disrupted. (Try to find out from where do all the zippers in the world come.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 22, 2022 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP so then the corollary of that, would be if there is no law, or government, then there would be no reliable manufacturing? I think that is what JBH was saying with the Mad Max part $\endgroup$
    – user99723
    Nov 22, 2022 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Dburn2023: If there is no law then there is no functional economy. 90% of the people are dead. (You do realize that without modern technology we cannot feed and clothe and shelter 8 billion people, right?) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 22, 2022 at 21:58

Making state of the art electronic is not only a problem of materials, but also of technology. While any amateur can expose board with a resolution of several microns, going to the nanometer scale requires complex machines.

Although several years delayed than its initial plan, extreme UV lithography (EUVL) with 13.5nm wavelength has been finally implemented into high volume manufacture (HVM) of mainstream semiconductor industry since 2018. With the delivery and installation of ASML EUV scanners in those giant Fab players like Samsung, TSMC and Intel, EUV lithography is becoming a sort of industry standard exposure metrology for those critical layers of advanced technology nodes beyond 7nm. Although ASML NXE EUVL scanner is the only commercialized EUV exposure system available on the market, its development is the concentration of all essence from worldwide industrial and academic collaboration. It is becoming more and more important not only for fab runners but also for main stream fabless design houses to understand and participate the progress of EUVL.

And to make those machine one needs also the electronics made with those same machines, or those from the generation before. To put it simply, you can have all the silicon wafers, gold, copper, indium etc. of the world, but if you don't have a litho fab you won't get any decent (for today standards) electronic.

And that is way more easy to achieve in a post apocalyptic scenario. Vacuum tubes might be done, but will never achieve the performances of today electronic.

  • $\begingroup$ This might work. From what @pelinore said about the materials not being an issue, the difficulty of making electronics should suffice. The only thing is that the apocalypse I was looking for wasn't a nuclear war or an asteroid hitting the Earth (nothing destructive). Do you know of a way that the high tech labs and such could be absent due to a passive cause? $\endgroup$
    – user99723
    Nov 22, 2022 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Dburn2023: No it doesn't work. This answer refers to bleeding-edge state-of-the art integrated circuits. A lithography machine capable of making the masks for an 80386 or 80486 is not quite so very hard at all; and I can assure you that those were sufficiently powerful for anything practical. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 22, 2022 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ You don't need modern electronics to get to space $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Nov 23, 2022 at 5:57
  • $\begingroup$ Also, vacuum tube technology never was developed to its limits because it never become necessary... $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2022 at 11:19

This is not feasible.

Most of the chip is silicon coming from just about anything, Earth is full of that and it is not too difficult to purify to something reasonably good. Dopants are common. The remaining materials such as rare earths are available mostly everywhere too. Yes, there are some countries dominating the supply. But this is because they have most suitable deposits, laws, tools and know-how to make extraction and purification profitable on a large scale. I daresay 90%+ of countries could get all required materials for chip manufacture on their soil, it just wouldn't be environmentally friendly or cost effective, so they don't. But blow up / infect / ... the rest of the world and Madagascar as the obvious safe spot becomes the world powerhouse in chip manufacture.

So, you need to break down everything. JBH's answer talks about supply chains and this is a good starting point. The main problem with it is that an ancient process doesn't require all that much fancy stuff, especially as we have worked out most of kinks. You can prevent 2020 tech. Perhaps make 2000 tech need many years to get back to. But 1970s tech can be set up fairly fast after complete collapse.

Next step would be that people forgot how to make chips. You can't really do that, unless the apocalypse wipes out adults and leaves just children alive. They would remember what glorious toys they had, but have no idea how to make them.

Yet another way of stopping chip manufacture is if your chips were responsible for the apocalypse so nobody wants to make them - but this is a fairly common trope these days.

  • $\begingroup$ >You can't really do that, unless the apocalypse wipes out adults and leaves just children alive. Nah, a dedicated Hitman organization with like 20 people and 4 helicopters on each continent yould wipe that knowledge out easily in global chaos. I study computer science (incl a how cpus are made class) and I would be absolutely lost $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 23, 2022 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok Knowledge to make state of the art stuff would be indeed lost easily, kill the top scientists/engineers/... and you set the field back years if not a decade even without apocalypse. The problem is wiping out knowledge how to make 70s chips. Even a small Slovenia has people making old tech chips - you can't realistically assassinate everyone. $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2022 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ True, I was too focused on semi-modern stuff, but the basic processors you can make in your basement with maybe a couple of scavenged chemicals. That won't bring you to the moon, but should be enough to replace control elements in essential machinery or so (with enough skill) $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 23, 2022 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ Not just wipe out the adults. Wipe out all the books. Bazillions of tons of books located everywhere from people's houses (like mine, microelectronic design, physics of fabrication, etc.) to high school, college, university, and corporate libraries. Wiping out the lab notes and folders full of data and observations of hundreds of millions of people.... Wiping out knowledge has been asked about on the Stack. It's really, really, really hard to do. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 24, 2022 at 18:47

Have difficulty yes, unable no

For the working scenario I take a process of recovery from post-apocalyptic state when commercial stability has been restored, and there are resources to resume production of the more and more technologically complex products, but lack (or expensiveness) of raw resources creates obstacles on this path.

Some of the resources that our civilization is using are considered non-renewable, such as oil and gas. Ores, on the other hand, while non-renewable, can be recycled. There are not so much easily accessible gold deposits anymore, but most of what people have mined so far is recoverable. The only question is the price of it.

So, under this working scenario it is possible that recovering civilization can be starved off certain materials that are presently necessary in electronics. Gold is one such example, rare earth elements is another.

However, semiconductors in general should not be affected. Silicon, as well as most doping elements are broadly available and in not in any realistic risk of depletion.

With realistic depletion, the cost of new gadgets may make them too expensive for the consumer segment, but as mentioned above, the elements themselves are still available here on Earth, research and development would still be possible, albeit at a higher cost.

One notable exception to this is Helium. While almost all other elements stay put on Earth, Helium, once extracted from the Earth cavity, eventually escapes to space. So this new civilization may have to cope with shortage of helium, which would put restraints on its superconductor research and fields related to it.

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    $\begingroup$ Funnily enough, for a lot of materials (like copper), it's now profitable to mine old waste heaps from mines - they often have more easily recoverable material than actual ore (as high concentration ores are depleted). In a post-apocalyptic scenario, you'd have even nicer "deposits" of human waste all over. Raw resources are not going to be a problem, except for oil and coal. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Nov 23, 2022 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ Gold? Electronics consumes a small fraction of the gold extracted. The bulk of it is either stored or used for jewelry. And gold is fantastically expensive right now, but that doesn't prevent the use of tiny amounts in electronics. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Nov 23, 2022 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ Helium is semi-renewable, in that it is leaking from far underground. Much of the helium we use is trapped in natural gas deposits, where it leaks up from below then gets trapped by the same barriers that keep the methane from escaping; those deposits aren't renewable. But over long periods of time (geologic?) new deposits will form; of course, the same may be true of methane deposits $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Nov 23, 2022 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP - sure, my argument here was about the rising cost rather than depletion. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Nov 23, 2022 at 18:24

Materials required to fabricate many types of electronics compose roughly 50% of the Earth's crust. It would be virtually impossible to get rid of them all.

The earth's crust is made of...

  • 27.7% silicon
  • 8.1% aluminum
  • 5.0% Iron
  • 3.6$ Calcium
  • 2.8% Sodium
  • 2.6% potassium

Silicon's primary use in electronics is to make semiconductors (transistors, diodes, microchips, etc.).

Aluminum itself is actually a really good conductor. It can be drawn into wires and used to make coils for transformers, electric motors/generators, power transmission lines, etc.

Iron, while a much worse conductor than aluminum, is still a viable choice in many cases. And can be used to make stuff like electromagnets and inductors.

Calcium Sodium, and Potassium all have their uses making batteries.

It's probably more likely that knowledge, practical expertise, and infrastructure required to make advanced electronics would disappear rather than the actual materials necessary to do it.

If engineering and production facilities of tech-corporations are destroyed, universities are destroyed, libraries are destroyed, and the internet goes off-line that knowledge would exist mostly in the minds of knowledgeable professionals and whatever private reference books they own.

If those professionals don't pass on their knowledge to the next generation, it's possible that knowledge could become virtually lost within a generation or two. This could happen either because schools are not operational, professionals are specifically targeted for elimination, or they simply stop practicing their skills and don't take on apprentices (perhaps because they are busy trying to survive, can't get work in that field, or can't get the materials to perform their jobs).


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