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The concept of a metal poor world is one that I find deeply fascinating. In part because I fell in love with the setting that first exposed me to the concept, Dark Sun.

So I want incorporate a very limited access to metal into the back story of my setting. However I don't just want the planet to be metal poor, its more that the peoples living in my world for much of their history had a very difficult time accessing the planet's metallic bounty.

Before I resort to hand-waving I was wondering is there any possible real explanations for why the metal on a planet would be difficult to access.

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This is an interesting idea and could easily be explained with scientifically-sound methods.

The main thing that creates metal deposits (we speak more of deposits in the minerals industry, as opposed to veins, which are usually a mode of how metals exist within a deposit) is tectonic activity. Every deposit I can think of off the top of my head - and I'm an exploration geologist, so that's a fair few - has some manner of tectonic influence in its creation. Often that is from the opening up of a new basin caused as a by-product of subduction, meaning there is somewhere for seawater to infiltrate the oceanic crust and be heated up by exposure to the mantle. This causes the water to be able to liberate metals out of the crust and bring them up to the seafloor, where the metals precipitate out due to the change in temperature. This is just one example of tectonic activity driving the formation of mineral deposits.

Where a planet does not have tectonic activity, it will often not have an atmosphere or hydrosphere. It is widely theorised that Earth developed an atmosphere (and as the result of this developed a hydrosphere) as the result of outgassing from the early crust caused by volcanism, which is the result of tectonic activity. There are other ways to get an atmosphere though; massive early bombardment from a comet swarm has been theorised as a way to get enough gas and water onto the surface to develop into an atmosphere.

A planet that formed the same way as Earth that happened to have a much lower amount of radioactive material could have easily cooled down a lot quicker; something like 90% of the heat in the core and mantle of the Earth comes from radioactive decay. Random cosmic chance is more than enough explanation for this. And this would have allowed you to have an atmosphere, as the early heat would have been enough to drive tectonic activity, but this would have stopped quickly as the core went cold without radioactive decay to drive it.

Without tectonic activity to drive their formation, mineral deposits would be very restricted. A way you could introduce a very limited amount of metals into your world would be through the bombardment method discussed earlier. Approximately 1.9 billion years ago, a massive rock smashed into the crust in what is now Ontario in Canada, resulting the formation of one of the world's largest nickel deposits. Sudbury represents a fraction of a percentage of the world's mineral resources, so it is by far and away the exception in the formation of metal deposits, so you could use that as a plot point to explain why one civilisation is more powerful than others.

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  • $\begingroup$ You gave what is most likely to be "The Answer" to my question,at the same brought some complications. I wanted a world with a lot of rough terrain, deep ravines,wide valleys, hills everywhere, plateaus and long mountain ranges. If i'm reading you right, then this world logical should have an abundance of metal-deposits. The world having been far more geologically active in the distant past than in modernity is definitely something that I can incorporate. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 3 '16 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ It's a real challenge. Where a world has an atmosphere, then the action of wind and rain will erode peaks and fill valleys to homogenise the landscape. Being geologically active is the way that the landscape stays interesting. If your world lacked a specific event that Earth had, then you could break the technological development chain that humans experienced. If there was no easily accessible iron (bog iron, banded iron formations) then it would be difficult to access other minerals, as there's no way of making tools. Lack of access to coal would also prevent the development of metal tools. $\endgroup$ – Ben MS Mar 3 '16 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ Just going metal poor would make this easier. I had planned a very different development chain. The peoples started with natural material and ceramic. then began to develop synthetics to fill the gap of metal. They also developed metal rendering, they learned to break down substances and extract the metallic elements. By the time mining developed to the point that they could access the deposits, they had evolved beyond needing them. I still want to keep this,but I will cut it if need be. People are lazy and if there material that could do metals job cheaper, then they would use those. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 3 '16 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus I agree it would be smarter to just have less useful metals on your planet. And Ben, while you make a good point, you must make sure there is at least some tectonic activity, or a molten core, otherwise your planet is going to go the way of Mars. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Mar 3 '16 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ I think there's one major exception to ores created by tectonic activity, and that's banded iron deposits. Those were created by sedimentation as oxygen from newly-evolved photosynthetic organisms reacted with dissolved iron. See e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banded_iron_formation So if we assume the people on this planet are oxygen-breathing natives, rather than colonists of a terraformed world, they'd likely have iron ores. But would they figure out how to refine them without previous experience with other metals? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 3 '16 at 4:48
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Could be your people just doesn't have the technology level to use metal. History of full of complex civilizations that didn't have the technology to use metal( the Aztecs the Mayans the Incas to name a few examples) well these peoples we're still very advanced socially and intellectually they just didn't have the technology to use metal.

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    $\begingroup$ In short no, not without changing a lot. The peoples started with bone,leather,wood,stone,crystal and ceramic. But as time went on material science(alchemy) first improved upon what they had. Then they began to develop synthetic materials to fill the gap that metal left. Metal rendering, a process of breaking down substances to extract the metallic elements was developed. And by the time that they had gotten good enough at mining to start reliably tapping the deposits, they had developed beyond being metal Dependant. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 3 '16 at 2:02
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How advanced you want your civilization to be? If you don't mind having them at a neolithical stage, then you can go for a completely different approach: lack of oxygen.

If the life in your planet is not oxygen-dependant, then it's quite definitely doomed to stay at neolithical stage of civilization forever. A intelligent species needs at least three things to produce a technologically advanced civilization:

  • Being groupal: no matter how intelligent its individuals are, any technical progress is going to require collaboration and team work, if only so for having some of your people to produce food for you so you can use your time for thinking, inventing and creating new things. This includes having a language, since transmission of complex knowledge to the next generation is a must.
  • Having a brain capable of 3D vision and abstract thinking, and extremities able to use tools. Ultra-intelligent lions would be dangerous creatures, but they would never build a plane.
  • Energy sources

A intelligent but not technologically advanced species can use natural materials to make tools and utilities from them, either organic (wood, fur, bones, organic fibers...) or inorganic (rocks, water). But to reach the next level of evolution, transform these raw, naturally existing materials, into something artificial that cannot be found in nature you need to apply energy. Specifically, you need to alter its chemistry. And the only source of energy that is powerful enough to make that kind of transmutation but can be made and handled by a primitive civilization is fire. Without oxygen, there's no fire, and as such the most advanced civilization you can have is a few steps above of the Neolithic age.

With enough time they may discover some acids or hard bases to dissolve and even melt some materials, but it is unlikely that they can use these to make adequate tools. Fire allowed our ancestors not only to cook and keep predators at bay, but to make new, enhanced tools. Bone can be twisted and wood hardened with fire, metals were melt with fire, food was preserved (among other methods) with fire... without fire, even if you are virtually surrounded by iron ores, they're completely useless to you.

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  • $\begingroup$ What is their endgame oxidizer then? Fire requires an oxidizer, not necessarily oxygen...one could, in theory, have lifeforms that use an oxidizer other than oxygen... $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Mar 8 '17 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, with a lot of handwaving, you could. The problem is similar to silicon-based life. In principle silicon could be a base for organic chemistry just like carbon, but differences in bounding energies and abundance in the universe make that carbon compounds are much more easily formed, by several orders of magnitude. Same thing with oxydizers. I don't know of any that could be easily found in nature and handled without peril by a non advanced species. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Mar 10 '17 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ I mean -- if you have a lifeform that's built to run on something else other than oxygen as an oxidizer -- that's what they will use for making fire, etal as well $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Mar 10 '17 at 12:29
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If your planet has already had and lost one species of intelligent technological life it would have very little ore near the surface since it would have been mined out, much like modern day earth. You might have a few pockets of ore that were under important structures or are the buried remains of ancient dumps or scrapyards. Most metal would be very deep or too dispersed to be minable.

basically your planet has already had one species with a technological civilization and it has gone extinct, now millions of years later there is little evidence of them other than the lack of near surface metals. This would make metals rare but not impossible. Deposits would be small or hard to get to.

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Silicate dominated geology, metals are relatively easy to access on earth because our metal bearing rocks are dominated by oxygen and sulfur which are relatively easy to drive off most metallic elements, silicate rocks are not so easy to reduce to pure metal. If ore formation happens under anoxic conditions deep in the earth where sulfur is rare then silicates would dominate the chemistry and metal liberation would be much harder.

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