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Long story short, this civilization found very little oil and natural gas in their world (or maybe they ran out of both), but there are huge deposits of amber and special pine trees which produce rather energetic resin (source of that amber).

Let's assume that both amber and resin are not unlike the ones we have on Earth. Can they be used as viable fuel sources for a steam engine?

update: Ok, let me ask a little more specific.

I have a world with little to no oil and natural gas, but with big reserves of amber, some coal (there is a lot of amber => there were a lot of pines at some point in a distant past => they left coal) and pine trees that produce resin.

What would serve as a better fuel source for a steampunk civilization (late XIX century, if compared with our history):

  • coal (won't last more than a century or two)
  • amber (way more than coal, but is it as good as coal?)
  • wood (slowly renewable)
  • or pine resin (renewable)?
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  • $\begingroup$ See youtube.com/watch?v=RNLckM_YUWA - i don't know if it is a viable fuel source, but at least we can see it does burn. If it's real... $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 25 '17 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ If it burns and there is a lot of it then it's a viable fuel. In 19th century Egypt they used mummies to power steam locomotives... (Not really, no, but it's a great urban legend.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 25 '17 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ It would seem more plausible to burn pine wood instead of pine resin. $\endgroup$ – Michael Vehrs Jul 26 '17 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ i have the impression that it might be a lot more efficient to burn vegetable oil or alcohol. It's a lot easier to use in a carburetor than a highly sticy or even solid fuel. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jul 26 '17 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ Why not biodiesel, such as rapeseed oil? It's a passable diesel fuel and much easier to extract than resin. However, if the world in question is covered with redwood forests, might be another story. $\endgroup$ – alamar Jul 26 '17 at 14:15
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Amber and pine resin will burn

Since amber and pine resin are both hydrocarbon molecules, they will burn in the presence of oxygen. However, actually burning amber requires much higher ignition temperatures. On the way to ignition, the amber melts into an asphalt/tar-like mixture which eventually ignites. This forum thread talks about turning amber into varnish but discusses a lot about the behavior of amber at elevated temps (>400°F). It's messy.

Some refinement process may be required to get unprocessed amber to the lighter grades of petroleum that we see in modern gasoline or diesel. I'm not enough of a chemist to say what would be required in that process.

Preferred Fuel Source

Since steampunk usually runs on solid fuel such as coal, a furnace that burns amber would probably be the most economical. Amber is the more abundant fuel source and I trust that inventors will figure out ways to deal with the whatever ash is left behind.

There may be energy density differences between coal and amber, in which case the higher cost of coal may be more cost effective in some situations. Since amber isn't commonly used as a fuel, someone with more chemistry than I will need to calculate how much energy is locked up in the hydrocarbon bonds in the amber.

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  • $\begingroup$ You'd probably have to scrape the burning chamber fairly regularly too. Pine, I know, is a terrible firewood for fireplaces because the pitch leaves behind a black tar residue which can build up in the chimney (and cover the glass viewing plate modern fireplace inserts have). Bound to be a messy job. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jul 28 '17 at 15:54
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A quick Google gave me this link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/fes3.13/full

It mentions using turpentine extracted from pine resin as a diesel additive (improving emissions and engine performance) and as an alternative fuel for jet engines. I think turpentine on its own may be too volatile to be an effective fuel for heating water, but perhaps there are refinery processes that would make it more suitable. I'm not enough of a chemist to know.

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Fossil Fuels

You say you don't have a lot of oil or natural gas, but you're limiting your fuel sources. You can get natural gas from coal via the coal gas reaction. That's the source of the gas used for gaslight in Victorian times.

Other sources of energy

Pine Trees

Pine resin can be refined into turpentine, which—as @egor045 mentioned—can be used for fuel. With all those trees, you've got yourself a massive potential source of wood alcohol (methanol), another potential fuel. Lots of pines means lots of pine nuts, which can be used to produce pine nut oil, as well as delicious, delicious, pesto. That's another source of fuel (the oil, not the pesto).

Other plants

Diesel's first engines were designed to run on peanut oil. The Model T's engine can run on ethanol. Distillation of alcohol could be done using pines as a fuel, or, if the climate gets cold enough, by freeze distillation. Get yourself some high-proof hooch, spike it with methanol to keep people from drinking it (drunk driving is bad) and you've got yourself a great power source for an internal combustion engine. As for oil for diesel-style engines, why not use an existing plant that is high in oil like sunflowers, rapeseed, or peanuts. You could invent your own plant, too. Make it high in usable oil, but have that oil be difficult to extract or useless without some piece of technology or recent discovery and you'll have yourself the foundation of an oil economy.

Hydropower and wind power

The Industrial revolution didn't start with steam power. It started with water and wind power. Mills and factories ran on waterwheels long before people discovered that lightning wasn't Zeus throwing another temper tantrum. It was windmills that pumped out the Zuiderzee. Electricity generated from these methods could be used to power things directly, or in the manufacture of something (e.g. methane) that will work as a fuel.

Hydrogen

With 19th century technology, you've got the ability to use the electricity generated in some other way (whether or not that way is detailed here) to hydrolyze water. That gets you hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen can be sold off to people exploring the ocean or really tall mountains. The hydrogen burns, and will do so quite energetically, but might be better used in the Sabatier reaction to produce methane (i.e. natural gas).

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From an energy content perspective, amber would be roughly equivalent to soft (high non-carbon content) coal. Fossilization doesn't add any energy (absent some really strange corner cases), so I don't see it being much better than the same mass of dried wood. Quantities of amber large enough to burn strikes me as stretching it, for story plausibility.

What the resins give you is the possibility of extracting/distilling into a liquid fuel (turpentine or similar.) Liquid fuels are much, much easier to work with in many ways. And liquid fuels that don't produce significant solid ash can be used in internal combustion engines. That's something that could change how a world works.

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There is already a tree that produces resin that can be directly used as a fuel source, the copaiba "diesel tree" of the Amazon (Copaiba tree info.) Reportedly this tree can be tapped for the sap which can then be used directly by a diesel engine, or converted into bio-fuel. Not hard to imagine a process that converts the sap into a hard amber resin that could be stored and used like coal (though if you have liquid biodiesel I'm not sure a coal form would be necessary).

So you could replicate a lot of the industrial era energy conflicts with this model. Standing copaiba tree groves would have to be protected and harvested (probably requiring slave labor) while there could be mines for the amber. Of course in a pre-petroleum world there were also animal fuel sources, such as sperm whales, so your world may have a similar creature as well.

Of course if they have biodiesel why would they bother with steam engines instead of far superior diesel engines? Well, running pure biodiesel (B100) is really hard on internal combustion engine valves and such. So without petroleum to cut it with, it is quite possible that the ICE wouldn't take off as maintenance was a nightmare, so using bio-diesel just as a heating source for a steam engine may end up being more efficient and sustainable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Please enter link description. Leaving "enter link description here" looks funny. +1 anyway. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 26 '17 at 17:01

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