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In my story, I'm trying to create a natural disaster of sorts that severely limits the amount of metal used in society. Are there any processes that would be biologically compatible that irreversibly break down different metals into stuff that isn't metal? The processes wouldn't need to arise in organisms naturally. The more kinds of metal the better, but main ones are Iron, Steel, and Aluminum.

I've thought of using bacteria, however I've looked at a few questions, including this as was mentioned in the comments, and most answers I've seen regarding bacteria is them rusting metal, which still allows the metal to be usable by re-smelting it, while I'm trying to permanently destroy the metals.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Would it be possible for an alien species to eat metal? $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jun 6 '17 at 7:10
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    $\begingroup$ You can make bacteria rust metals or turn them to another chemical compound, any of which would allow recycling. But you can not have a bacteria turning metal into some other element, like sulfur or carbon. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 6 '17 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ Chemistry cannot transmute elements. You need nuclear reactions for that. Biota don't do nuclear reactions. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 6 '17 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ What @AlexP said: you cannot make metals become anything other than metals unless you break apart the atoms' nuclei, or fuse them with something else. There is no conceivable organism on Earth that can induce nuclear reactions. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Jun 6 '17 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ Are you ok with turning metal into a salt and making this salt expensive to purify/obtain metal from again? So instead of a physical barrier, you get an economic barrier that limits your metal? Btw, since there is so much Iron (steel is made from iron, I hope you knew that) and Aluminium that even if bacteria could turn it into whatever, I highly doubt that this would ever create the problem you want - all that you could ever hope for is, e.g., making steel structures vulnerable. I think if you think about your question for a minute, you will come up with a better scenario $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 6 '17 at 11:46

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The answer is, of course, no, because what you're talking about is practically alchemy, not science and chemistry. It's super not possible. Not without a nuclear reaction.

I do think you've overlooked something as far as rust is concerned.

You say:

I've thought of using bacteria, however I've looked at a few questions, including this as was mentioned in the comments, and most answers I've seen regarding bacteria is them rusting metal, which still allows the metal to be usable by re-smelting it, while I'm trying to permanently destroy the metals.

But here's what you're missing--if these rusters exist everywhere, it doesn't matter if it's re-smelted. It will just rust again. If refined metal lasts for a single day, it will be abandoned as something to work with--despite the ability to re-smelt, why on would anyone bother making something out a material so unstable and weak?

You're counting on the fact that people will want to use metal again because they recall it in the past--that it won't matter what the obstacles are, if the metal is recoverable, they'll do that.

Post-apocalyptic society might never bother to do that. Even once they re-build.

I mean they've figured out how to build a wooden skyscraper.

Humans beings do the easiest and cheapest thing that they can. Once in a while they diverge from that and do something odd--if I were an artist, for instance, I would make metal sculptures--they'd last for one day, and crumble into dust. How beautiful and temporary is that? I'd make objects that lasted one single day for children. There's a prize inside that they can have once it's crumbled.

I say use a kind of nanotech that's as small as bacteria and everywhere on earth, practically, which only activates in the presence of metal.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not that it affects the answer, but it's kind of ironic that your first sentence after 'do the easiest and cheapest' is to reference art. Art is often considered good art largely because it took extreme care and the attention to detail it required to complete. Part of intelligence, even, is in the effort to build a pool of knowledge that allows for solutions that don't just follow the path of least effort to achieve an immediate goal. A tendency to find the difficult inspirational & motivational hardly fits your assertion. $\endgroup$ – Giu Piete Dec 9 '18 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Gui Piete By and large, a material that difficult to work with, in a post-apocalyptic society just won't bother and will find new ways to do something. There might be exceptions to that rule, but for the purpose of world-building having all metal crumble when exposed to air means that it's unlikely to be used for practical purposes for a LONG time. Certainly it would fit the OP's criteria of " a natural disaster of sorts that severely limits the amount of metal used in society." Bit of a re-frame to the possible in my answer.. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Dec 13 '18 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ Certainly it would hardly be expedient. I like the answer as a solution to the actual problem, fwiw. Vaguely recall a scifi setting where aliens had caused all heavy elements to decompose with magitech, but waving with one hand is much the same as waving with the other ;-) $\endgroup$ – Giu Piete Dec 13 '18 at 9:51
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Are there any processes that would be biologically compatible that irreversibly break down different metals into stuff that isn't metal?

No. What's done can be undone.

but main ones are Iron, Steel, and Aluminum.

Aluminum is not found in a metalic state in nature. People have learned to get the Al atoms out of minerals, at great effort. If they have aluminum, they already know how to get “metal” out of non-metalic forms bearing the desired element.

Any process such as you describe works by combine metal atoms with other atoms. Chemical processes rearrange atoms but never destroy or change the chemical elements. For iron, learning how to do the opposite was the birth of the “Iron Age” and it just requires a lot of heat, slightly more refined technology than just making fire.

Steel is iron with a pinch of carbon, BTW; not a separate element. People made steel in the first place. If it’s destroyed and they recover the iron, they can make steel again.

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, for reference, we already consume a non-zero amount of iron in our diet and it's needed in order to make hemoglobin. Hemo- as in Hemotite, meaning iron. I've never looked into what biological process starts the chain of events (that is, what bacteria or plant first breaks the iron molecule out of stone) assuming there is one. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jun 6 '17 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron#Biological_and_pathological_role «Iron acquisition poses a problem for aerobic organisms because ferric iron is poorly soluble near neutral pH. Thus, these organisms have developed means to absorb iron as complexes, sometimes taking up ferrous iron before oxidising it back to ferric iron. …» $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 6 '17 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s a public lecture about the use of metal atoms to suppliment more normal proteins and why that's such a useful thing can be found on YouTube from SLAC. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 6 '17 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ Cool stuff. I was just noting that I'd never looked into it before, only wanted to mention that iron is already a "thing" that all animals on Earth need to consume. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jun 6 '17 at 14:10
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Biotechnology

In some science fiction there are races that use biotechnology for everything, doing most of the things we do but using biological processes. They could potentially have huge living nuclear reactors that transform metals into other elements.

Why they would do this is less clear. They could have used up the uranium this way, but transforming iron into other things tends to require energy.

Nanites/Transformers/Metallic Dragons

You could have some metal based lifeforms. All metal has been converted into these. Attempting to convert these armor-plated killing machines back into raw metal is... brave.

Hidden Metals

If the metal remains metal, perhaps the lifeforms hide it. Even if the dragons aren't metal themselves, retrieving metal from their lair would still easier said than done. Alternatively, perhaps some form of underground lifeform has eaten the metallic ores and distributed the metal evenly through the earths crust. Without concentrated ores, trying to extract metal out of dirt wouldn't be easy. Some bird's mating ritual could involve dropping shiny things into the deepest parts of the ocean, where some other lifeform buries them.

Virulent Rusting Organisms

Perhaps you can smelt the rusted metal back into metal; however, if they rust again within a few days, there isn't much point. If the only metal you can actually use is (say) titanium that would reduce the amount of metal easily available.

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Can bugs 'eat' metals - certainly yes, although it depends on the exact chemistry.

In this case, we can see metals as just a source of energy, and most commonly used metals (Iron, Aluminium, Titanium, Magnesium, for instance) release energy when oxidised. The only reason why bacteria don't use these as energy sources is that there has been little chance for such behaviour to evolve. The change of oxidation states in iron is used. The main problem is that metals don't contain things like carbon and other nutrients, so it's hard for bacteria to grow on them.

Can metals be put beyond use - well, with a bit of story telling..

In order for bugs to evolve to eat metals, native metals must exist in nature. So your planet must have had a lot of pure iron, aluminium and other metals lying around. This gives us a story; your natives have never learnt to separate metals from their ores because the metal was lying around anyway. Now the bugs have learnt to oxidize all these metals, vastly restricting their availability. Note that copper and other 'noble metals' like silver and gold would be unaffected because oxidation would not be energetically favorable enough.

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  • $\begingroup$ I worry about the corrosion aspect, since that isn't very permanent with technology equivalent to nowday's (as far as I know), which would allow people to use metal after awhile. It would probably work for short term, though. $\endgroup$ – MCCG Jun 6 '17 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ Copper and silver may be considered “noble” for some chemical definition, but silver easily reacts with salt and sulpher, copper turns green, etc. It's just a matter of the bugs mechanically separating the bits from the bulk, as opposed to natural tarnish which forms a limiting layer. Bugs eating the metal will not leave the protective patina. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 6 '17 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed - but you get very little energy out of reacting them with oxygen. Our postulated metal-eating bug would go for metals higher up the reactivity series. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Dodds Jun 6 '17 at 20:31
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All chemical processes (which is what biota use) cannot change the elements involved, merely rearrange them differently.

All chemical processes are reversible, given the right conditions and reactions involving metals tend to be quite simple (mainly oxidation) and only need an adequate amount of energy to revert.

Depending on the degree of likeliness you need in your novel you might call into nuclear reactions (never observed in actual living things) to transmute elements. Asimov wrote a nice short story amounting exactly to the reverse of what You are asking for (see: Pâté de Foie Gras)

A couple of notes there:

  • The plausibility of such a reaction is about the same as plausibility of "Cold Fusion".
  • Likeliness of developing such process in practice, even if really possible, is very low.
  • In any case nuclear reactions (as pointed out in the novelette I linked) are very specific, down to the isotope (completely irrelevant in chemical reactions), so You would need a whole bunch of "metal eaters", or you can restrict to a single metal disappearing (iron? copper?) and thus breaking havoc in a society heavily relying in it.
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I'm reminded of a plague, I can't remember what book it was from, someone was trying to create a bacterium to break down certain plastics in a recycling plant but it got out and ate every plastic bag on earth in 24 hours flat, along with a lot of synthetic fabrics and other polymers for dessert. If someone was trying to create a bio-concentrating agent to extract say Iron from low grade ores or better yet Magnesium (I'll explain that in a moment) and concentrate it for smelting and that bug got loose it could destroy metals at an alarming rate. If it ate an alloying trace metal the damage wouldn't even be that noticeable until things started to fall apart too, the reason I suggest Magnesium is that it's an alloying metal in most industrial Aluminium products and a good number of different Steels and it's absence wouldn't be immediately apparent but would lead to a rapid break down of the material (it could also break down glass and ceramics which may or may not be desirable). Such a disaster wouldn't need to last all that long either, the bacterium could burn out in just a couple of weeks but if you consider the widespread break down of infrastructure and the death toll that would be involved, both the immediate damage from falling buildings and longer-term as the food transport web broke apart, then getting back to using metal on a large scale is a nonstarter. The survivors of a disaster of that scale and type are never going to trust complex metallurgy again either, though their great-great-grandchildren might turn their hand to it eventually.

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If you're using hard science, the problem is metals are elements and it's rather difficult to change elements into something else. If you're not using hard science, then you can insert whatever physics won't rankle the audience too badly.

It may suffice to make the metals unusable. For instance one hard-science angle is that some metals will suffer induced radiation from bombs or use in reactors or reactor accidents. So you'd get a (largely valid) moral panic about metals making people sick; and the decay products may weaken the metal or attract corrosion.

It doesn't need to be neutrons and radiation specifically, it can be any Applied Phlebotinium from your own world's sci-fi future. Maybe two interstellar powers were fighting a planet-hopping war and poisoned the planet's metals with Noobiton rays, or it was once an FTL waypoint and FTL drives do this.

Who knows, who cares, life just is that way. They won't miss it, they've never experienced usable metals. It might be interesting if your society was just starting to discover the science that explains it.

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The Titanic is currently being turned into dust by metal eating bacteria. The rusticles seen hanging off of the wreck are not the result of oxydation (not much 02 at 12k feet under water), but the bacteria.

So, yes, such creatures not only can exist, they do exist. The metal isn't really destroyed, it is turned into oxides. However, the structure of the solid metal is being destroyed.

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Using a nuclear reactor, you can turn one element into another. So, why not invent a bacterial with a biological nuclear reactor inside, changing metal into non-metal?

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    $\begingroup$ Because this is not how stuff works $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jul 21 '17 at 14:38
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An alternative idea:
For some reason, there is now a super powerful magnetic attraction at the core of the planet you're interested in. Also, the upper layers of its mantle are relatively soft.
Every kind of metal is attracted quickly to the core of the planet - a place of extreme conditions where it's hard to go for simple mortals.
Given a constant supply of energy, it would theoretically be possible to tear chunks of metal away from the core, and to use them for whatever purpose ; however in practice it is too costly to do so.

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How about this: in the future, human scientists are experimenting with harnessing antimatter and they were able to develop a technique for "tuning" antimatter to only destroy specific elements; making it possible to handle the antimatter in containers and use it in power plants. They decided that iron should be used as the fuel source for react with the antimatter, and make the required tunings. They choose iron since it is very abundant in the Earth and has anyway (by this time) been replaced as a building material by indestructible plastics. Suppose humans use such antimatter reactor technology for many centuries, consuming iron, until humans have used up all the easily-accessible, surface iron on Earth.

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