# Can there be a space age without petroleum (crude oil)?

Crude Oil, is a term used to describe petroleum products harvested from geological formations beneath the Earth's surface. As a fuel they maybe called hydrocarbons, hydrocarbons can be found/created in sources other then crude oil but currently crude oil is the primary source on Earth.

Would a space age be possible on a planet without crude oil resources? Either Earth after our supply is exhausted or a different planet that never developed crude oil.

There are two perspectives here:

Could Earth's space age survive the end of the crude oil reserves?

Could a space age develop on an alien planet never having crude oil (or similar) energy resources?

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• "Could there be space age without petro/oil?" Answer is so short, it violates SE rules, as answer is simply "Yes." One could (unnecessarily) elaborate on specific technologies, such as how electronics doesn't need oil, rockets don't need oil, etc., but the answer is still the same: Yes. There could be a space age without oil. Contrary to Werrf's answer, you do not even need coal. Renewable energy sources have been used for a very long time and needed no petro/oil/coal prerequisite. Oil was not necessary at all; it was, however, extremely convenient and likely accelerated certain advances. – Loduwijk Apr 13 '17 at 15:50
• NASA space shuttles don't use oil or coal for fuel. They use liquid gasses.The main engines burn liquid hydrogen -- the second coldest liquid on Earth at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 252.8 degrees Celsius) -- and liquid oxygen. – cybernard Apr 13 '17 at 20:24
• @Aaron Contrary to your comment, Werrf's answer explicitly mentions that while those sources do exist, they don't really scale very well. – corsiKa Apr 13 '17 at 20:40
• @corsiKa I don't think that is really contrary to my comment. Werff suggests charcoal does not scale well. All I said was that 1) you do not need coal and 2) Renewable energy sources have been used for a very long time. Now that I think about it, I see that where I say "renewable" you are probably assuming charcoal specifically. I was actually thinking of hydro power and wind power when I said "renewable energy sources," and perhaps I should have said so. Wind, hydro and geothermal power do not require coal as a prerequisite. Nuclear probably requires some kind of combustion prereq., but ... – Loduwijk Apr 13 '17 at 20:52
• To kind of boil it all down, you need energy and science, not petroleum. Not even fossil fuels like coal. Of course petroleum has made it incredibly easy for us to advance as quickly as we have. In an alternate universe, this would take longer, but it's still very doable. Keep in mind that the diesel engine, at least for a while, had peanut oil in mind for a fuel. It was just a lot cheaper to refine crude oil. There is a lot of similar examples. – Paul TIKI Apr 14 '17 at 13:34

## Yes...probably

What was really important to our development of technology was not oil, but coal. Access to large deposits of high-quality coal largely fueled the industrial revolution, and it was the industrial revolution that really got us on the first rungs of the technological ladder.

Oil is a fantastic fuel for an advanced civilisation, but it's not essential. Indeed, I would argue that our ability to dig oil out of the ground is a crutch, one that we should have discarded long ago. The reason oil is so essential to us today is that all our infrastructure is based on it, but if we'd never had oil we could still have built a similar infrastructure. Solar power was first displayed to the public in 1878. Wind power has been used for centuries. Hydroelectric power is just a modification of the same technology as wind power.

Without oil, a civilisation in the industrial age would certainly be able to progress and advance to the space age. Perhaps not as quickly as we did, but probably more sustainably.

## Without coal, though...that's another matter

You need some abundant, high-density energy source to bootstrap your civilisation up to the point where renewable energy sources can take over. We used coal for this, so I'll use 'coal' as a stand-in for 'abundant, high-density energy source'.

If you can't smelt steel or copper in large quantities, you can't build wind or hydroelectric turbines, you can't distribute the power, and you can't release all the labour that goes into farming for everybody.

You could use charcoal for a while, but it's horribly inefficient compared to coal. Think of the beautiful, wind-swept, unspoiled hills and moors of places like Scotland or Wales. They're famously unspoiled and untouched...

Except that they're not. Those landscapes are entirely man-made. Those hills used to be absolutely covered in conifer forests, but the trees were cut back, in large part to be turned into charcoal. If you tried to fuel an industrial revolution on charcoal...you might be able to manage it, with laser-focus on the goal of getting to renewables, and probably with an entire continent of trees being harvested, but by the end your economy would be teetering on the brink, and it'd be touch and go whether you and your tech could survive.

So the critical component is not oil, but coal. You need coal (or something like it) to get your tech base up to the level of using other energy sources - like wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, etc - on an industrial scale, and you need that tech level to be a space-faring civilisation. If our civilisation collapsed today back to a medieval level, it's questionable whether we'd be able to rise again, because so much of our easily-accessible high-quality coal has been used up.

• Yep, slow it down, not block it. Crude oil as energy source is absolutely unnecessary; there are pretty decent alternatives like ethanol, doable from natural resources. Hydrocarbons are a necessity for plastic, but they can be synthesized, albeit expensively. Crude oil success is the result of it being cheap, you literally take it out of the ground for free (and then inflate price artificially through profits and taxes way above its actual cost...) but with any hydrocarbon precursor combined with alternate cheap energy, lack of oil is not a problem. – SF. Apr 13 '17 at 14:10
• @JamesJenkins: Using wood instead of coal doesn't work because there is many many thousands of times less wood than coal. The coal deposits were made in the Carboniferous period from the wood grown over millions of years. All the wood on Earth would have been consumed in the first half a century of the Industrial Revolution. Some countries (such as Italy and Greece and England) even managed to consume almost all their available wood by the early 18th century, before the Industrial Revolution... – AlexP Apr 13 '17 at 15:15
• It's not that the space age ends once coal and oil reserves are gone; it's that you need something like coal to bootstrap you up to renewable energy sources. If you don't have the tech to smelt steel or copper in large quantities, you can't build wind turbines and distribute electricity. Once you're in the space age, you're less reliant on those energy sources, but you need something like them to get there. – Werrf Apr 13 '17 at 15:20
• You have a point, but I'm not 100% convinced that you can't bootstrap a civilization without coal. Over the course of history, most coal didn't go into R&D for renewable energy, it went into sustaining a large non-scientific population and considerable amounts of luxury for the elites. So if you don't have coal, it's a question of economic efficiency whether the fat gets cut from the elites and more % of total energy gets poured into R&D - and I'm tempted to say that would be the case, though it would be sheer speculation whether you can get to significant wind (or nuclear) energy sans coal. – DepressedDaniel Apr 13 '17 at 20:48
• A note on bootstrapping based on wind energy: The river Zaan north of Amsterdam hosted many windmills during the 17th century, and could be considered to be one of the world's first industrialized areas. "By the mid-17th century, approximately 900 windmills could be found along the river, [..]" ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaan ). Note that the 17th century is the Golden Age of the Dutch. By the end of the 17th century the British took the lead, based on coal and steam power. IMHO, it makes a nice case study. – Sjoerd Apr 16 '17 at 2:53

Yes but it would be harder. Werrf's answer is correct. You need an abundant and fairly cheap source of energy. Without it technological progress is slow. I think Werrf concentrates too much on replacing coal with other burnable fuels.

With modern technology we have replacements for fossil fuel power plants: nuclear, solar and wind, geothermal, and hydro-electric. We can make synthetic versions of fossil fuels if we have enough energy. This article describes how the navy can create fuel using CO2 from seawater and power from the nuclear reactors navy ships carry. Fuel is energy rich. Therefore it requires lots of energy to make. In the space age, your problem is expensive, but solvable.

In the industrial era, there are no nuclear reactors to power this process. Even if there were, people don't understand the chemistry well enough. Energy can be harvested with windmills, geothermal, and water power. All three of those depend on terrain. Countries with large elevation changes and decent rainfall, will have better access to water power, and therefore will have an easier time in an industrial revolution. Access to abundant geothermal or wind power will provide a similar benefit.

Note that in real history, geothermal power wasn't invented until 1904. Possibly this was because people would rather burn coal than go messing around with scalding hot springs and volcanoes.

You can't use your water power to fuel a vehicle, unless you can store and transport the energy. The reason we use chemical fuels in vehicles is because they are a very easy way to carry around energy. Until recently, a battery powered car could never have the same range as a gas powered car. You simply couldn't fit that much energy into a battery.

There are alternatives to fuel and electric batteries that may have been possible with imaginative industrial technology. Springs store energy, but it is difficult to get them to release the energy slowly. Compressed gasses can run vehicles, but the pressure vessels that store that gas have a nasty tendency to explode. In modern day, proper design codes have made this mercifully rare.

In summary, without fossil fuels, energy is harder to get, and much harder to store. An industrial revolution will require people to develop renewable energy generation and storage technologies that our society did not pay much attention to until much later.

• I'd expect to see a much greater use of electric trams and trains, and maybe personal vehicles that can use a third rail-type system to draw electricity directly from the grid. – Werrf Apr 13 '17 at 17:08
• @Werrf Thats a great point. A system with a third rail has no need to store power on the vehicle itself. It doesn't help until you get past the industrial era. I think we both agree that the industrial revolution era is the big problem. – BobTheAverage Apr 13 '17 at 17:25

No. It was never about the available technology, it was about the excess of energy required to break through to the next level. Steam engines and vacuum tubes wont get you to space.

Every civilization in history that has out-performed its neighbors has done so on the back of 'excess energy'. Something that the civilization exploited that gave it the energy advantage that allowed it to support and maintain the dreamers, the wasters, the entertainers, the artists, the inventors and the local equivalent of scientists and madmen and gave them free reign to explore new and different ways of doing things that did not have any obvious or immediate benefit to society. The vast majority of which could be reasonably considered a total and utter waste of effort. However, you only need one Einstein to move a civilization to the next level, and he started life as technical assistant in a patent office, the perfect job for just another waster. In any society before his (and quite a few after), he would not have been given the opportunity to basically sit quietly in a corner and think of daft ideas. Ideas that took almost a hundred years to prove right and that required the largest and most expensive engineering efforts in all of human history. That we can not even remember a single name from the multiple million other wasters also thinking of daft ideas is beside the point.

As a source of energy, coal has been burnt for millennia, but only when it was combined with iron and water in a completely ridiculous and ludicrously dangerous way, by a bunch of loonies who were so rich enough that they could be stupid to excess, could the external combustion engine (the steam engine) be invented to pump water from deep mines. When that steam engine was later matched with the equally absurd idea of a 'factory' process from the likes of Josiah Wedgwood, the result was the alien concept we now know of as the industrial revolution.

The western civilizations based on the industrial revolution reached their peaks at the start of the last century and normally they would go the way of all previous ones, excess followed by decline followed by replacement with something completely different, but this time, some fool exploited oil (which at that time was mainly whale oil and used only for lighting) to produce the internal combustion engine. That replaced the horse and allowed cities which had been drowning in horse manure to grow much larger, but more importantly, that source of easily exploitable excess energy was shared among everybody who was interested with the result that a bunch of parallel and equally powerful civilizations that now had excess energy and production capacity at previously undreamed of levels that were motivated to compete with each other for supremacy. The result was the first World War.

When people think of oil, they tend to think in terms of the power of the internal combustion engine, but it actually happened the other way around. Having invented the engine, people wanted a fuel to run it that was cheaper and more available than whale oil. Alcohol worked well but give some inventors (with excess alcohol) the opportunity and they will come up with material science. Crude oil became refined petrol and lots of other things. The petrol powered the engines which gave the excess energy which allowed scientists/alcoholics/wasters to think of daft things to do with the waste. Waste that (in the form of plastics) became the basis of the post steam age society. The same daft material science ideas that later gave rise to semi-conductors and modern electronics required to verify Einsteins daft ideas, and get us into space.

• When I first read this, I thought what about the Romans, they did use coal to some extent, but not extensively but I think for your perspective we could consider the surpluses of the conquered lands the 'excess energy' they used. – James Jenkins Apr 14 '17 at 13:22
• Oddly, it was more likely to have been hardened leather sandals that allowed the improved the transport of people and goods. Even a 20% increase in range produces almost 70% increase of area covered (pi*r^2). That meant bigger farms, bigger markets, bigger towns... – Paul Smith Apr 19 '17 at 11:12

Yes

Early steam engines used wood.

In the early 1800s the first internal combustion engine was created - and didn't use petroleum

In 1806 Claude and Nicéphore Niépce (brothers) developed the first known internal combustion engine and the first fuel injection system. The Pyréolophore fuel system used a blast of air provided by a bellows to atomize Lycopodium (a highly combustible fuel made from broad moss). - Wikipedia

Not having access to fossil fuels might have slowed things down just a bit but we were already well on our way to discovering the basics for combustion engines before we were using fossil fuels. I believe it is eminently feasible that without fossil fuels, plant based fuels would easily sufficed to bring a world the technological levels necessary to achieve spaceflight - especially given that rockets use hydrogen and oxygen and do not rely on fossil fuels at all.

• Before the advent of large-scale coal mining, Europe used charcoal. Europe still hasn't recovered from the resulting deforestation. Yes, it's technologically possible to use non-fossil fuel sources to power common machines, but I don't think there's enough biomass in the world to power an industrial revolution. – Mark Apr 13 '17 at 22:57
• @Mark, I hear you. The question was if it was possible to achieve and you've agreed that it's "technologically possible". Perhaps not here on Earth but the name of this site is literally 'World Building'. It doesn't have to be Earth and my answer said 'to bring a world' - not 'this' world. The planet could have greatly accelerated plant growth rate because, oh I don't know, it's atmosphere was 10% CO2 and it had two suns that allowed 22 hours of sunlight. The possibilities are endless. – Tracy Cramer Apr 14 '17 at 0:10

Others have put great answers here, I want to cover one specific point. Even without fossil fuel inputs, you can create energy dense fuels like RP-1. The process is inefficient, but very doable. The basic process is that methane, oxygen and water are fed into a chemical reactor at high temps and pressures in the presence of a catalyst and what comes out can be refined into diesel and jet fuel. (And RP-1 is just a carefully chosen version of jet fuel.) The methane input can be gotten from anaerobic digesters where sewage is decomposed in the absence of oxygen.

This is a complicated and inefficient overall process, but we can literally start with sewage and turn it into rocket fuel. We would need to use solar or nuclear heat to run the chemical reactor on, but it is doable.

A South African company called Sasol does this on an industrial basis, so the technology is currently available, not speculative.

• "Even without hydrocarbon inputs […] The basic process is that methane, oxygen and water are fed into […]" — you are aware that methane is a hydrocarbon? – celtschk Apr 14 '17 at 13:27
• Yes, but the methane doesn't have to come from fossil fuels. – zeta-band Apr 14 '17 at 19:12
• But as others have stated, you need the understanding of chemistry. – ChuckCottrill Apr 16 '17 at 8:18

There is very little petroleum product in a rocket. For example the shuttle used liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for fuel. For energy in space they tend to use solar or nuclear power. The only petroleum used on the shuttle would be plastic. It could easily be made out of vegetable oil instead of mined oil.

Getting to the space age would be more difficult. Much of the early industrial revolution was powered by oil. While as others have pointed out "alternative" energy is even older than the use of oil, oil beat all of them for ease of use and cost. Without mined oil the industrial revolution would have been slower in coming and not nearly so easily accomplished.

For an alternative setting probably the least alternative history would be liquefied coal as a replacement for oil as an energy source. The most outlandish would require inventing magic batteries so that electricity from alternative sources became viable for more things than it is now.

I think we're confusing our use of petroleum for technology with our use of petroleum for transportation. Powering technology is a different problem than powering vehicles.

Without the portability of petroleum, we could use wind and hydro power easily to power technology. Think of windmills and water wheels for grinding grain - similar setups could easily power the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution would be constrained to areas with access to wind/water power, but it would still happen.

The main issue with a lack of petroleum is actually transportation, not technology.

• Ah, but can you supply a modern infrastructure without adequate transportation? – called2voyage Apr 14 '17 at 14:07

The other answers are good so far, but I don't think anyone has pointed out that there's another way to easily lower the difficulty of getting off an alien planet: just reduce the gravity and/or atmospheric density. A smaller planet with less atmosphere is significantly easier to take off from.

Even though the delta-V required to reach low Earth orbit is 9.4 to 10.0 km/s, that required to reach low Mars orbit is only 4.1 km/s. Source 1, Source 2, Source 3

To see what a thick atmosphere does, take a look at the number for Venus: 27.0 km/s!

Remember, doubling delta-v more than doubles the mass of the rocket, as it's an exponential relationship.

I think you can, but I can't see any way of doing it short of knowing the end from the beginning. Werrf's answer is excellent in regards to the energy densities of coal and oil that bootstrapped industrialization.

Let us say you possessed no coal nor oil but had all of our physics and chemistry textbooks. Could you find a way? Yes. We turn to hydro power. Hydraulic concrete was known to and used by Herod the not-so-Great, which means we can certainly make it given the recipe in medieval times. In my mind's eye I see a place where a river has cut a canyon valley 1500 feet down. We shall dam this. At the beginning we cannot build the whole thing as the bootstrap order is preposterous, but we start on a smaller scale.

We head up the canyon or up one like it to find some stream narrow with a great plunge. We build a dam above and a pipe below to drive the generators. It will be a great and colossal work by man and mule to build and start the first high-energy generator, and another great breakthrough to build high density batteries, but once done we shall have power enough to begin mechanized transport. Now we can haul enough materials to make concrete enough to dam the canyon mouth. Long years would pass in its construction and it would be a wonder of the world of its own right. (If the king is wise he will build his castle into the heart of the dam and have such a castle as immune to all assault and easy access to the mountains above.) I have in mind that we can start the generators for the main dam before the dam is very high or wide, but even so the work is slow.

Now we sit in an interesting place. We have power, but not really enough. What next? Why nuclear power of course. Uranium ore will surely be traded away by the surrounding nations on the cheap, but other materials to build reactors not so much. But if we manage to win through we shall ignite the reactor and have so much power we won't immediately know what to do with it. But it's not enough. If you haven't seen the end from the beginning the king will think madness when you propose to build ten more of these.

You know where we are going to get rocket fuel? Right out of the ocean. We have enough power to crack water for hydrogen and oxygen. With all the hydrogen we can want we can lift great masses to orbit. With so much plutonium coming out of the breeder reactor (I know what I'm doing) we can build the nuclear saltwater rocket (Isp >= 10,000 sec). No coal, no oil, and we're still going interstellar.

Definitely YES. But it would be much more longer, in different ways and we would live in the different world.

## Energy density is the key

At each moment of progress mankind use the most cheap source of the energy with desired concentration. It's hard to imagine modern world without oil. It's hard to imagine factories without coal(or oil). To produce really good iron you need charcoal (or coal or oil). It's hard to cook hot food without wood (except you have oil/coal etc).

So mankind have been used many sources of energy: oil->coal->charcoal->wood. One could add nuclear power, natural gas, windmill and many others.

Each of these resources one could find at surface of planet. Ancient Greece has access to the oil. But.. why they don't use it for cooking? Because they don't need so concentrated energy. When civilisation develops and needs energy with coal density then people build mines. Could we use oil instead of coal? Yes, because first time it's easy to get it. I suppose we don't build nuclear power plants as many as coal-fired ones just because we don't need so much energy.

Of course without oil it's hard to build spaceship. But it's possible. F.e. synthetic fuel could be produced from coal.

## Alternative ways

Oil is just source of energy. But there are many other ways: hydroelectric, nuclear, solar plants. Without some kind of energy civilisation may change its way (and may not). Some examples

• Medieval Japan has lack of resources (particularly coal and iron) and this is the reason they didn't have long sword and full-plate armor. But they have katana as well as nunchuks.
• France had lack of oil and built nuclear plants
• Some northen people like Chukchi have no access to any energy but wood. They didn't know iron before they met Europeans.