Recently i've read Worldbuilding by Stephen Gillett and one thing that struck me was that for one reason of another many of the alien worlds lacked the resources needed for metallurgy. However, the book also mentioned how crystals would be common on at least a couple of these worlds which made me start thinking. Could a advanced species develop on a acidic world (even with less energy available) that instead of using metals, uses crystals, clays some other material in the place of iron/copper and has to advance on very different lines from humans with their steel and silicon chips or those other aliens with their calcium rich bioships and moldy circuitry?

Crystals and clays according to the book would be in abundance on the acidic worlds (which is a generalization- the author goes through nitrogen-oxygen worlds, worlds with chlorine rich atmospheres where plastics instead of cellulose is used for wood and sulfur rich worlds, all of these worlds he concludes would lack in iron/copper. Therefore leaving any civilization that develops on a acidic world with chlorine or sulfur all over the place 'In the stone age'. I am skeptical of this simply because is metallurgy really the end-all be-all to even consider technological civilizations? It seems like it is on Earth, but that's more or less because metals are attainable and iron is easily available. But on another world where that's not the case could some other technological base exist and could it still be possible to make a advanced civilization through some alternative form of conductors?

Crystals and clays to my knowledge both have diverse applications, but is it possible for them to fill similiarish technological niches seen in the modern world at least in the fields of automation of labor and/or computing?

  • $\begingroup$ A world with a mixed water/sulfuric acid ocean would have interesting hydrology. When rivers (depleted in sulfuric acid) meet the ocean heat would be released. A hot-spring where arctic life could flourish? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 17:52

3 Answers 3


The biggest bottleneck for developing technology is local and reliable food sources. Being able to settle in one place and not having to exert one's entire effort on getting food/surviving means that a civilization can start accruing information.

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." -Isaac Newton

Glass optics is considered to be a core starting point for scientific development, it allows for some of the earliest investigation into things both near and far.

Regarding technology (particularly computers), mechanical computers are very old (205 BC)(Antikythera mechanism, though it is metal, it shows that you don't need a circuit to calculate). The storage of data is also not limited to magnetic mediums, chemicals or even organisms (dna data storage) can be used to store data in a condensed format. Electricity and circuits can be made with organic materials(electrogens in microbial fuel cells) and even light can be used (holographic data storage) as data storage in crystals. Computers are definitely workable (that plus even more delicate materials can be insulated against the environment).

Another issue in developing technology is the kind of lifeforms that are utilizing it. Assuming that the lifeforms follow Earth examples, most acidophiles are single cellular but there are some fungi and algae that form colonies. Theoretically, they could eventually form into individual sentient beings.

The reason metals became common for tools and building is that they are both strong and easily shaped. Wood rots, it must be grown, and it can't easily be reshaped. Clay was mentioned, which could be formed into ceramics and would have various applications based on the chemistry. Crystals can also be grown depending on the variety of the chemicals available. Plastics are also excellent in acids particularly teflon.

Depending on whether the life forms are on land or in the sea, ceramics and plants would make useful building materials. Crystals could be used for small and delicate tools and lighting. Plastics would function as a recyclable and malleable resource.

I don't think you'd ever be able to get into space with a lack of metals, but hey, it's aliens, anything could be possible. You could have jellyfish that make rocket fuel and trees that grow into shape-able carbon nano-tube structures--bam! you've got rocket ships.


What about things like graphite and silicon? depending on the types of acids you're talking about, glass and some plastics cope very well with acids etc.

  • $\begingroup$ Nitric, Hydrochlorous & Sulfuric Acids are what comes to mind in regards to acid types. All these acids evidently may potentially make up the oceans of alien worlds. Not exactly fun places for people, but they could be great for aliens. $\endgroup$
    – Zoppadoppa
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 15:35

Crystal would melt in acidic environments, unless it develops a material to strengthen (I don't know for sure to be exact) . Clay on the other hand would be exact but if there was a pool of acid in on an acidic planet with rain and soil PH, the clay would be there to prevent the world from eroding.


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