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Although the fossil fuel coal had been used as a fuel since 1,000 B.C., it wasn't until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution from the mid-1700s through the 1800s that coal began to replace biomass as the primary source of energy.

It is evident that the Industrial Revolution also marked the beginning of an era where the world human population began to explode, along with energy consumption. I would say, it was from this point onward, that we saw the incredibly fast (in the grand scheme of things) development of technology; completely changing the way humans live their day-to-day lives.

It is common knowledge that fossil fuels are non-renewable and that they are quickly diminishing. But what if fossil fuels never existed in the first place? Specifically coal, oil and natural gas.

How would the development of modern technology have differed if fossil fuels never existed?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! Just so you're aware, these kinds of "how would things be different if-" questions tend to be closed for being too broad. I also think this may be a duplicate, there are other questions here that ask similar things. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Aug 16 '17 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. This question is very broad and may not have a decisive answer. Could you edit your question to make it more direct? $\endgroup$ – Aric Aug 16 '17 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ Well, for starters, chances are that there would be no woods anymore... $\endgroup$ – Florian Schaetz Aug 16 '17 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Wood fires can't smelt iron, and the production of charcoal is lossy. +1 Florian. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Aug 16 '17 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ The actual industrial revolution started with water power. You should really look it up -- they made impressing feats of engineering, of which the one which I like most are hydraulic accumulators, essentially batteries storing energy in Earth's gravitational field. Chemical industry would work pretty well with vegetable and animal-based raw feeds; only a small part of the oil (and an minuscule part of the coal) is used in chemical industry. What's actually most restrictive in a world without coal is that siderurgy would have never taken off; iron smelting furnaces consume a lot of coke. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 16 '17 at 13:37
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On a whim, I visited Wiki and looked up its list of the defining technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution. I'll summarize what might have happened to that list from the perspective of coal not being present.

Generally, without hydrocarbons, the industrial revolution would have been delayed and the global power brokers might be different. But, ultimately, it would have happened anyway. There's nothing you can do with coal, oil, or natural gas that can't be done with something else.

Please bear in mind that at the same time the Industrial Revolution took place, so did substantial advancements in chemistry and electricity — including Faraday's discovery of electrical generation. By itself, wind- and water-based electrical generation combined with the use of motors would have replaced most of the industrial revoution's advancements. (I don't count solar electrical generation as solar panels weren't invented intil the 1950's. Even with scientific pressure from the loss of hydrocarbons, it's unlikely — impossible IMHO — that they would play any roll in an industrial revolution.)

The technologies that would be most impacted by the loss of hydrocarbons are (a) those depending on heat (especially those that require a lot of heat over a large area) and (b) those depending on transportation.

Concerning (a): Electricity is great for creating a lot of heat in a small area and mediocre for greating a little heat in a large area, but it's lousy (at least back then) for big-heat-big-area problems. However, solar could replace big-heat-big-area fossil fuel solutions, making cloudy days very inconvenient, but it could be done. Non-hydrocarbon chemical reaction could also do it, and chemistry was a big part of the Industrial Revolution.

Concerning (b): transportation would be the most delayed aspect of development, waiting until either a chemical process, improved battery technology, or electrical distribution could replace the combustion engine.

My conclusion, if you don't want to read through my list, is that the Industrial Revolution would have occured anyway, but it may have been 30-60 years late. Even hydrocarbon lubricants can be replaced by non-hydrocarbon solutions. Necessity being the mother of invention, the increased demands of population and industry would simply have sought solutions elsewhere. You can always overestimate humanity's collective wisdom — but you should never underestimate its collective genius.

Politically, the revolution would have basically occured among the same nations. The focus might have shifted to Germany rather than remaining in England (mountainous waterfalls would be an advantage); but, ultimately, it I believe it would still have been something born in Europe.


Here's the list of technologies that defined the Industrial Revolution.
Textile manufacture: enhanced by automation. That automation was already well underway due to mater-driven mechanization. Easily attained with electrical replacements.

Metallurgy: is more difficult to achieve with electricity, but not impossible. It's a big-heat/small-area problem. Add to this solar heating or non-hydrocarbon chemical processes and most if not all of the value of fossil fuels can be replaced.

Steam power: suffers greatly as does the transportation that is powered by it. Machines that depend on a fixed-location motor can be driven by electricity. But mobile engines like trains won't come to pass for a long time (see Transportation (Railroad), below). However, somebody would be thinking about how to do this almost instantly. Once a more-powerful-than-my-horse motor (chemically or electrically powered) comes into existence, inventors across the world would be looking for ways to make it mobile.

Machine tools: Like textiles, would suffer almost not at all as they are as easily driven by electric motors as by steam.

Chemicals: This important aspect of the Industrial Revolution would be impacted little by the loss of fossil fuels. In fact, the development of chemicals and chemical processes might actually have been enhanced by their lack. Chemical batteries would have been very high on the list of developments. Also high on the list would be chemical reactions that could produce any form of motive force. Chemistry, alone, may have replaced fossil fuels; it simply would have required more time.

Cement: Not impacted by the lack of fossil fuels other than due to transportation.

Gas lighting: Wouldn't exist, but would be quickly replaced by arc lighting followed by filament lighting.

Glass making: Would be affected moderately due to the heating problem identified above. If solar heating couldn't fix this problem then it might have been overcome by converting the original sheet glass process to one that could use high-heat/small-area solutions.

Paper machine: Probably unaffected other than transportation. This remarkably important contribution to the Industrial Revolution would still happen.

Agriculture: The British Agricultural Revolution is considered one of the causes of the Industrial Revolution because improved agricultural productivity freed up workers to work in other sectors of the economy. And the British Agricultural Revolution had nothing to do with fossil fuels. It would have been unaffected and its value toward the Industrial Revolution in general untarnished.

Mining: While electricity might have replaced steam engines, delaying but ultimately not affecting the mines' contribution to the industrial revolution, the fact that one of England's biggest mining operations at the time was coal means the focus of value would have shifted elsewhere.

Other developments: Other developments included more efficient water wheels, based on experiments conducted by the British engineer John Smeaton the beginnings of a machine industry and the rediscovery of concrete (based on hydraulic lime mortar) by John Smeaton, which had been lost for 1300 years. Neither of which would have been effected by the loss of fossil fuels.

Transportation (Canals): It's the building of canals that would be slowed for the lack of steam-powered tools, but they would eventually be replaced by electric tools. The value of the canals would remain intact.

Transportation (Roads): Again, the building of roads would be slowed, but the value of roads would remain intact — although their ultimate value would not be realized until either battery technology or chemically-induced motive power could replace steam and, later, gasoline.

Transportation (Railways): This is the big one. Steam could move mountains. It could eventually be replaced by electricity, but only after an energy storage system or energy distribution system could replace combustion engines.

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  • $\begingroup$ VERY Minor nit-pick: cement production does require heat for the production of the lime component. Large quantities would be more difficult to produce in the absence of fossil coal and NG, but many civilizations did manage cement without it. Our biggest problems now involve retooling to use less, or none. +1. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Aug 16 '17 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @SeanBoddy, That's an excellent point. I hadn't even gone back to the details of lime. I've no doubt that all these technologies (like the iron plows of the agricultural revolution) will have details such as this. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 16 '17 at 16:43
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Without fossil fuels our civilization would have lacked a cheap and widely available energy source to boost its growth.

Using biomass as energy supply immediately lowers your available resources, and cut off some regions from developing. So, unless you aim to create a world wide Easter Island, this is a no go.

Solar energy can be used at most for warming some water. With no fossil fuels smelting silicon to make solar cells is nothing more than a dream.

Wind energy is a bit more versatile (as the Netherlands show), but it is not programmable and also heavily location dependent.

Nuclear energy is hard to discover if you lack the ability of extracting radioactive atoms, which again requires quite some energy.

Probably we wouldn't have developed further than late Renaissance if it wasn't for fossil fuels.

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Fossil fuels are central to the way we actually booted our Industrial Revolution.

Without them the path we followed simply wouldn't be there.

It is difficult to "foresee" (strange word, when applied to the past ;) ) what would have been the path in that case. A few considerations apply:

  • Oil is used as raw material for chemical industry, not only as fuel; that part of chemistry wouldn't exist altogether.
  • Energy, however, is the main concern and the only concern for all XIX century (at least).
  • Missing fossil energy sources we would have had to resort to renewable ones:
    • Wind power is somewhat unreliable, in most places, but technology to tap it is age old and fairly reliable in certain places (e.g.: Netherlands, Aegean sea, etc.)
    • Solar power has had scant development till recent times, but it's well known since ancient times (burning glasses); again this would have worked at its best in specific areas (surely not in Britain!).
    • Water power is another energy source well known and exploited since B.C. times; while more widespread than other forms of energy it is low concentration... until some serious electrical power plant is devised.
  • Northern Europe would be penalized by lack of coal (which fueled its development) and sun power.
  • Sun power is the only kind of energy that can be directly used for metal smelting.
  • Most likely most of "Industrial Revolution" would have happened in north Africa and, later, in west U.S. where we get high-quality solar power and nearby iron mines (I'm nor speaking about the East because I don't know it's conditions enough).
  • This Revolution would have had Ferrous Metallurgy at its core like our history, but the fuel, after dropping wood charcoal due to disappearance of forests, would be large mirror arrays
  • Most likely this would have brought to invention of Bessemer converters earlier, since integrating carbon while smelting was not an option.
  • As hydropowered water mills where known since dark ages (at least in Islamic Spain) places where both solar and water energy fonts would be available would flourish.
  • All this means factories would concentrate in "suitable places", scattered around the globe, as transportation of energy would be (for the time being) unfeasible.
  • Sailing ships would continue dominate the oceans.
  • As soon as technically feasible electrical power would be pushed to maximum extent as the only one "easy" to transport over long distances.
  • Electrical power plants would be hydroelectric, at least at beginning, with some Windmill converted to generator.
  • Aviation would have been confined to aerostat for long periods.
  • Far-East "heavy duty" kites would be in use for some time for observation and transport.
  • The above would have lead to kite-powered sail ships, much faster and maneuverable than "normal" ones.
  • Widespread usage of electrical power would have fueled all "modern" industry.
  • Geopolitics could have been very different, though.
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No Fossil Fuel, No Problems (sort of)

Wood can be converted to charcoal, which burns hotter and cleaner than coal. Trees, as a renewable resource, could provide a reliable and steady input for industrial processes. It is, however, more expensive and difficult to acquire than coal (e.g. you have to grow trees, then cut them down, dry them, burn them in a kiln to create charcoal.) This site says

Wood charcoal was used in iron production up to about 1750. Charcoal works well but it would be too expensive to use in steel making. It takes about 100 kg of woods to make only 1 kg of steel.

Furthermore, wood and other biomass can be used to create a replacement for gasoline and natural gas. Alcohol can also be used a motor fuel, and it can come from several different crops.

Impact

But none of these would be as cheap or easy as a fossil fuel. Because of this, steel and iron would be very expensive.

  • Automobiles would be expensive so only the wealthy, corporations and governments could afford them. Additionally, their range would be lower, since the energy density of these fuels is less than gasoline.
  • I would expect to see most electricity generation from hydropower, solar and geothermal. Wind turbines would consume way too much steel for them to be cost effective. I would expect large smelting/metal-working complexes to spring up near the dams, so as to make use of the electricity produced to smelt and forge various metals.
  • Technological progression would be slower, as raw materials are harder to come by. It's hard to play with a motor when a block of iron costs a two years wages.
  • Land use would be a serious constraint. With the production of so much charcoal and crops for alcohol in addition to food, I would expect much more arable land would be in use than is the case today.
  • High rise buildings would be much rarer since their costs would be significantly higher.
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