In my world, the knowledge of science is largely lost, but many of the practical facts are still remembered. Chemistry morphed back into alchemy. My main character grew up as a peasant in a city's outskirts, and learned alchemy from an old textbook and experimenting on what she could find in the forest.

My question: what kind of chemistry can you do only with the ingredients you might find in a forest with high biodiversity? Let's say that the main character was lucky and also found some mineral deposits or somesuch. What chemicals would she have had access to?

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    $\begingroup$ This isn't really suitable for the hard-science. You aren't asking for something that needs equations or papers. This should be science-based. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 2 '17 at 4:48
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion’s point is correct; I edited the tags. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 2 '17 at 6:17

One of the most prominent alchemical substances was potash (potassium carbonate), which can be made by collecting regular old wood ashes, dissolving them in water and then drying up the water. (In fact, the word potassium comes from potash, or "pot ash".) You can use potash and animal fat to produce lye and soap.

Are there caves in the forest? Another nice material is saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which you can get by soaking bat guano and filtering the crystals out of it. If you don't have access to bat caves, you can produce saltpeter by collecting a pile of manure, mixing it into a compost heap with urine and wood ashes, letting it decompose, and then leaching and filtering the result with potash.

All you need to make alcohol is fruit and a place to let it ferment. Besides drinking, alcohol is useful as an antiseptic and fuel.

One substance you can't get from an ordinary forest, but would be an excellent find in your story, is sulfur, which is often found around hot springs. Sulfur and saltpeter, burned together in the presence of steam, lets you make "oil of vitriol" (sulfuric acid). Depending on what else you find natural deposits of, this can be used for a whole host of purposes, although this kind of strays away from the original question. But one thing that is worth noting: Sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter is all you need to make gunpowder.

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    $\begingroup$ Post brought to you by Dwarf Fortress? ;-) $\endgroup$ – fho Mar 2 '17 at 13:17

In a forest one can find fruits, and from fruits produce diluted alcohol.

From diluted alcohol and distillation, one can produce concentrated alcohol. From diluted alcohol and further oxidation one can produce acetic acid or acethone.

From vegetal fibers one can produce paper, cloths and various textile.

With concentrated alcohol (and discipline to not get wasted every Friday night) or acethone and paper one can perform cromatography on some pigments, and learn how to extract them to dye cloths.

  • $\begingroup$ In a medieval style forest, you won't find many fruits. Not in Western Europe, and not in Eastern North America, at least. Lots of beechnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts (America only) if you are hungry, but not much by the way of fruits. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 2 '17 at 14:08

Phosphorus requires simply urine and sand:

Brand's method is believed to have consisted of evaporating urine to leave a black residue that was then left for a few months. The residue was then heated with sand, driving off a variety of gases and oils which were condensed in water.

The final substance to be driven off, condensing as a white solid, was phosphorus.


Under the dead leaves and such, there will be more "weathered mineral particles" but it seems to be just further decomposed organics until you would get to "clay, iron, and aluminium oxides." Deeper, you'll run into "silicate clays, iron (Fe) and aluminium (Al) oxides, and organic material." Then, according to Wikipedia's soil horizon article it could be anything.

The Wikipedia article on hot spring mentions a lot of potential essential Saltes. I've been to hot springs near forests so it should be plausible.

My best guess is, with enough effort, you would be able to produce smoke powder/fireworks/maybe gunpowder and help people supplement their diets by drinking "potions" to avoid mineral deficiencies. With accurate enough instructions you might be able to make thermite.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_horizon https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_spring https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermite

(I'm sorry for he formatting; the only device I've got is my cell phone. Feel free to edit while I try to fight off sleep and read the help files!)

  • $\begingroup$ The factors that make the metallic fuels in thermite so good at producing an exothermic reaction also cause them not to be found in their elemental form in nature and also to be very difficult to extract. See chemguide.co.uk/inorganic/extraction/aluminium.html $\endgroup$ – RoyC Mar 2 '17 at 12:49

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