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In a setting I'm considering, all electric current (not related to the sodium pump in biology) stops on Earth at our current technological level.

So what would the immediate effects of all electric current being blocked?

I'm particularly interested if any existing forms of transport would function, such a older diesel engine car, without embedded computers (petrol engines being dependant on spark plugs).

Would there be any explosions due to power plant cooling relying on electricity?

In answer to the comment below because there is a 'magical' interference with the power flowing. Sorry; I can't be more specific, as I haven't worked out the physics of magic as of yet. But yes, fundamentally something changes within the nature of physics. It can't affect biological life directly, though. So if changing constants means death for everyone, then another cause must be taken. Indirect problems such as pacemakers failing and some other side effects like using technology which fails are acceptable for the world; there are some other side effects to life that are not directly related.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you clarify why the electricity stops? If it's because all copper suddenly disappears that will be a radically different answer than what would happen if magically Maxwell's equation suddenly go weird (or similar). $\endgroup$ – Green May 26 '16 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Green hope this is sufficent for what you need to know. $\endgroup$ – Wes May 26 '16 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ Related - What would happen if electricity stopped working?. The question and answers there don't talk about the immediate effects, though, so it's not a duplicate. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts May 26 '16 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @RobWatts Your name is absurdly relevant to the question. Something is robbing the watts. $\endgroup$ – ChronoD May 27 '16 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ @ChronoD I'm innocent, I swear! It wasn't me! :D $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts May 27 '16 at 17:27
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Immediate effects:

Well, the short answer is virtually every piece of machinery and every gadget in common use would stop functioning, instantly. There are some few machines and appliances that do not require electricity, but they are very rare in the first world. Embedded electronics are nearly always easier and cheaper to make than mechanical alternatives, which is why they are ubiquitous in modern society.

There would be some catastrophic consequences. I think the biggest immediate problem would be all the vehicle crashes. Many vehicles these days are drive-by-wire and would be out of control. Some airplanes would be doomed because they don't have the mechanical systems to maneuver with literally zero power available, while others would be able to attempt controlled crash landings, though they would have no guidance to help find nearby airstrips. In aggregate, those sorts of crashes would result in a high death toll with many wounded people as well, most of whom would be unable to get timely care.

Water would stop flowing shortly, as the water towers drained and pressure in the mains dropped. Most people would run out of water soon after that, which would be a major problem in the cities especially. Depending on the time of year, no heating or cooling would be a major problem as well. Older or infirm people would be trapped in high rise buildings. Lots of people would die in the weeks following the electrical shutoff, like most of the people in the major cities, if only from starvation when the food trucks stopped delivering to the supermarkets. But I suppose I'm getting far afield from "immediate" effects now.

Another problem I just thought of is without pumps running continuously, lots of subsurface structures would flood. Subways, for example, or tunnels.

Transportation:

Some older diesel vehicles do not require electricity to run. They have mechanical fuel injectors, mechanical fuel pumps, and manual transmissions. I'm specifically thinking of the 12V 6BT diesel powered Dodge Rams that were made from 1989-1998, but there are probably others. Think 1980s and older.

You need the manual transmission to start the vehicle without a working starter motor, and since the vehicle won't shut off without electricity (without stopping the fuel flow by hand) it'd be easiest to just let it idle as much as possible when not in active use. In cold weather (below freezing, or even 40 degrees F sometimes) it would be very difficult to start the engine without the glow plugs or electric heating grid elements to get the combustion chamber temperature up.

Any diesel that doesn't have electronic injectors, and that has a manual transmission, could theoretically be modified to work without any electricity. But if the engine has electronic injectors, forget it, find something else.

Gas engines are off the table permanently. They simply do not work without some source of spark ignition. Early gas engines used magnetos instead of the current battery and alternator setup, but that's still electricity.

Explosions / Destruction:

In certain situations there could be steam explosions or similar high pressure gas explosions because the valves stopped opening to relieve the pressure in the system. Water in cooling systems in industrial plants that stopped moving could cause lots of problems when it finally boiled off and ruptured the pipes.

I'm not positive about what would happen in a nuclear plant if the power suddenly switched off; nuke plants are designed to fail gracefully, so to speak, but they would have no reason to assume power would disappear completely when they designed the failure controls. It's possible a steam explosion would open up the containment building, but I think the consequences of that would be very minor compared to all the other more mundane problems outlined above.

Wind farms would be in trouble, though. Wind turbines can only run so fast safely. If they were unable to turn out of the wind in a high wind situation, they would shake themselves to pieces. A failed windmill can throw pieces of itself hundreds of meters.

Recommended reading:

You might want to read John Ringo's Council Wars series, or at least the first book. In that book, there is a worldwide mechanism that sucks excess energy out of the world, which normally serves to contain things like explosions, but has other consequences later. It might give you some ideas.

Also, William Forstchen's One Second After deals with the aftermath of an EMP attack in detail, if you want to check that out.

S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire and following books (Emberverse series, I guess it's called) also explores the concept.

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Depending on how much electricity ceases to work will dictate how far back the civilization clock rolls

Computers If computers cease to work, that will roll us back to the 1950's or 1960's (depending on how you want to quantify it).

Electrical Systems Cars and airplanes rely on electrical connections to coordinate ignition and engine start up. The very earliest gas engines may not require electrical systems (but I'm not super familiar with those engines so I can't say for sure.) Everything in modern transportation grids rely on electricity in one way or another. Trams and subways will just stop. Diesel engines will also just stop. Every car on the road just stops.

Electrical Generation and distribution The first hydropower plants were built in the early 1880's with primitive power grids spreading out about that time. If power distribution ceases to work then technology reverts to steam powered and water powered machinery. Nuclear, coal, gas, and solar power plants will cease to work. If the coolant pumps for nuclear power plants fail, then there will be multiple Fukushima or Chernobyl type disasters all over the world.

Medical equipment will stop working. ICUs will lose all their monitoring equipment. Surgery rooms will go dark. Lots of people are going to die.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Cars and airplanes rely on electrical connections to coordinate ignition and engine start up." Don't gasoline-powered engines need spark-plugs (and thus electrical current) to ignite the gas? $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas May 27 '16 at 2:42
  • $\begingroup$ @NicolBolas, that's correct. I thought "coordination ignition" would indicate a gas engine distributor and spark plugs but that wasn't especially clear. $\endgroup$ – Green May 27 '16 at 2:50
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As others have mentioned, the reason for stopping makes a difference.

The two most likely scenarios I can think of are

  1. A new product enters the market that everybody grabs that drains the grid to non-functional."
  2. A massive EMP burst.

With 1, it's only going to immediately affect things connected to the grid. A lot of computers not on Uninterruptible Power Supplies will fry. Big companies with backup generators will likely be unaffected, and neither will hospitals. Military bases will be fine as well. Cell phone use will skyrocket for awhile as everybody uses cell for what they were using TV and computer for. BUT a lot of towers are not backed-up, so there will be a lot of dead spots. So you'll get a lot of people out wandering around waving their cellphones around.

With 2, Things that "survive" aren't the things that are backed up, but the things that are shielded or able to take the surge (sturdy or off). Again, military bases survive (US military has most hardware shielded against EMP). This time though, hospitals go down. Cellphones are all fried. Modern cars are down. However, older equipment will survive since they don't rely on fine circutry but bigger bulkier wires. So old rotary phones may still work, classic cars will run fine. Also, depending on the strength of the EMP, things that were off at the time of the pulse may be fine. So smatterings of cellphones and computers all around. People who have a primary computer and have a secondary computer that remains off (their kids computer, an unplugged laptop, etc.) would still have access. However, most internet sites would go down (many of the hosts aren't shielded, relying on copies in case of failure, but all copies would be toast.) So most of the web wold be down other than .gov sites and net will be spotty depending on local facilities. However, most homes will still have basic electric stuff (lights, heaters, and other dumb items.)

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But yes, fundamentally something changes within the nature of physics. It can't affect biological life directly, though.

This is the crux of the problem you face. Science considers biology to be within the realm of physics, so there can be no scientific answer to your question. Thus, with no plausible scientific answer the answer, is "whatever you want the effects to be." It will be exactly as consistent as you want it to be, and it will have exactly the relationship with science that you want it to have.

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