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I've got an old PC in my attic that is close to fifteen years old, I know it will still work if I was to clean the spider webs out of it and plug it in to a mains socket, this got me thinking, how long would modern solid state type technologies continue to operate after a collapse of civilization ?

Assumptions -

  • Collapse is not a nuclear event so no EMP issue.
  • Collapse was relativity quick, no more then a year between inception and the end.
  • Collapse does include a massive population decline.
  • Collapse has cut all transportation and communications links beyond local areas.
  • Collapse still allows for power generation, such as portable generators, solar or wind turbines. National power distribution networks have however failed.
  • Technology level is the same as earth current.
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry to say that your scenario shatters all suspension of disbelief. A collapse of civilization will, 100%, involve massive die-offs. I don't think you realize how dependent large urban centers are on food shipments, water processing plants, etc. If electrical grids fail (which they will), then all those pillars of civilization will collapse like dominoes. And once the water stops flowing, and food, fuel, etc. being shipped in, society will devolve into absolute chaos, where the strong take from the weak, and people starve to death. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 8 '17 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ Is the premise of your question true? Electronic components degrade over time. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Nov 8 '17 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @ o.m - That's the question, given that I can pick up some technology from 15 years ago an it will work today if I give it power, what is the timescale for the degradation? is it measured in tens or hundreds of years? $\endgroup$ – Gawainuk Nov 8 '17 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ It really depends on the individual item and how often it will be used. Electronics today will last a decade or so if used. The things that fail the most easily are capacitors and batteries. Some components can last centuries to millenniums so repair on most things should be repairable by swapping out damaged components. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Nov 8 '17 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ I fear that this may be on the broad side, even when restricted to solid state technology. If this was about computers it'd probably be a semi-duplicate of How long can an abandoned, semi-sheltered computer remain bootable?, but yours is broader. Compare also e.g. What would a Boeing 747 look like if it were left in a hangar for 5,000 years. Could it still be flown? Books have been written on this subject. Unless you narrow this down further, I fear it'll likely be closed as too broad. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 8 '17 at 17:34
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Here's an electrical engineer's perspective...

  • The solid-state aspect of your computer will outlive us all. Boron can leech from the chip case, corroding the silicon chip itself, but the aluminum leads will oxidize and corrode long before that. Nevertheless, your average chip, sitting on a shelf doing nothing, will last for hundreds of years.

  • It's the other components that are the problem, most notably the capacitors in the power supplies. There's moisture in them thar caps, which means sitting on a shelf they'll corrode a bit like batteries. I've successfully used 30 year-old caps, but I've also thrown away far, far more than I've used (fixing antique radios).

But, all this assumes the device isn't in use...

If the computer is in use it's shelf life is 10-30 years. Yes, there's always that one computer that, for reasons only heaven knows, is still operating after 50 years without maintenance... but that is decidedly the exception, not the rule. If you think about it, we're constantly throwing away electronic stuff right now because it breaks down. It's become so great a problem that I'm reading articles about it in EE trade journals. The clasic animated series Futurama makes jokes about it. With great care, 10-30 years. With standard use, 5-10.

But the exceptions also work the other way. My father bought a new-in-the-box broadcast digital TV decoder. I lasted six whole months before it died. Why?

... the capacitors! (I kid you not, I'm fixing it.)

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  • $\begingroup$ To add to this answer: One other vector for the decay of electronics items is Metal Whiskers. This has become a renewed issue with the RoHS mandates, as Leaded Solders would help to reduce the issue, but removing lead has caused it to return. Basically: The metals that make up the connections in a circuit board can grow hairs and short-out the board. $\endgroup$ – Steve Nov 9 '17 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Thanks, that explains the bits I needed to know :) $\endgroup$ – Gawainuk Nov 9 '17 at 10:09
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Running and being runnable are very different things. Most technology will fail when the power fails, which will happen very rapidly. But turned off components, stored in safe places, might be able to run for a long time. And different technologies will have different durations.

The more basic the technology, the longer it will last.

Suppose that a party of survivors reaches an abandoned city, 100 years after the die-off. Supermarkets will hold little of value to them (except honey and some liquors), as will most computer shops, at least not without some work. To the very least, they will need to carefully and thoroughly take the dust off the components.

But hardware stores will still have plenty of usable, useful technology, such as shovels, pickaxes and the like. Power tools are more dubious, but maybe they could get some that were properly packaged to work.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, not necessarily. Shovels will rust faster than computer chips degrade. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Nov 8 '17 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, and no. I am pretty certain that current year chips (12nm technology node) will be a lot more prone to failing after decades of time than old 1um technology of the 80s. Simply because the wires and everything are so very thin that one could get faulty way easier. Even if unused, because higher energy radiatioactive stuff could more easily destroy a wire than it can with micrometer technology. (It is less likely to hit, but more likely to destroy) $\endgroup$ – ArtificialSoul Nov 8 '17 at 19:19
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Here are the factors:

  • Power - hardest to maintain, batteries don't last long and power sources usually require maintenance.

  • Moving parts- the longer moving parts remain in operation the shorter the life span of a device. Even solidstate computers have cooling fans which have variable life expectancies.

  • Heat and Dust- heat can degrade any tech component if not properly managed. Similarly Dust can cause shorts if allowed to accumulate between connections.

  • Atmosphere- finally atmosphere can be a critical factor. Oxygen is a reactive compound which can oxidize metal parts rendering them ineffective. Similarly water is a universal solvent and eat away components (if the impurities don't cause shorts first).

How long can solidstate tech last depends entirely on the engineering and exposure with respect to those factors.

A well made Satellite can last for millennias provided its orbit is stable enough and isn't blasted by rocks.

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The question was asked here and their answer suggests it depends on a lot of things like oxidation and radiation, but the answer is not well defined. The suggestion being between 10 and 100 years.

This reference suggests a MTTF of 20 years so half will be dead after 20 years, some will last several times longer and a few might last hundreds of years.

However if the chip is not in regular use and are not being powered off and on regularly then I imagine the life time would be much much longer. Assuming it had been stored in a well-protected environment I suspect 100 - 1000 years would be a more reasonable estimate.

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