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Author Topic: Steampunk without coal  (Read 1312 times)
19th Century Space Pilot
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« on: March 25, 2017, 06:42:50 pm »

Or what I like to call, Canalpunk. Though it may already exist under a different name, and perhaps be closer in some respects to Clockpunk.

Basically what the title says. The agricultural revolution happened, freeing up a lot of labour to work in towns, but the planet never acquired accessible coal deposits. Without coal, the amount of iron that could be produced is limited, and so is cheap mechanical power from steam engines - so no railways. Instead, there are a lot of canals and canal boats, some pulled along by cables and others pushed along by onboard motors using either external or internal combustion. Hydropower is used a lot, as it was in the American Northeast, to power industry, though it's not unusual for human powered machinery to still be used in areas lacking abundant rivers - and suitable rivers are of course limited in number (though that shouldn't be too much of an issue, since 1/6th of humanities electricity in generated by hydropower - admittedly that involves very large engineering works).

The idea came from plotting how to develop Westeros, which may or may not have abundant coal that isn't being used. I suppose it could also be a setting for post-apocalyptic fiction, where Those Who Came Before mined out all the easy seams and burnt them the first time round.
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« Reply #1 on: March 25, 2017, 07:33:47 pm »

The Westeros of George R. R. Martin?
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« Reply #2 on: March 25, 2017, 07:44:42 pm »

Yes. Is there another?
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« Reply #3 on: March 25, 2017, 10:27:39 pm »

Without coal there are plenty of other non-electronic sources of power one could harness in either a realistic or fantastic world. Hydropower could be used with great effect if one imagines super-efficient watermills capable to harnessing rivers and waterfalls to power intricate clockwork machine factories - with the interesting limitation of location to create competition and conflict.
There's also wind power, with windmills, or mills powered by beasts of burden or even human beings.
Mills aside, one could go wild and imagine fictional energy sources like magic crystals, plants that burn long and hot, or even more dark and creative paranormal forces.
Oh, and then there's whale oil. I am an animal lover, so it's a bit heartbreaking to contemplate, but a mix of realism and fiction could make a world where whaling is the perilous gold-rush of the age, and violently competitive ships brave the elements, and each others' wrath, to hunt oil-rich leviathans whose oil is supernaturally powerful as a fuel source.
Just a few thoughts Smiley
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« Reply #4 on: March 26, 2017, 10:01:20 am »

Winterfell is located on some geothermal springs as well as I recall. That could perhaps be harnessed, or wildfire could be used for fuel.
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« Reply #5 on: March 27, 2017, 03:48:04 am »

Absent a viable fossil fuel energy resource, there are some very fast growing plants that might be farmed as biomass.  In such a setting, locales with an abundance of both sunlight and water could be major energy production centers.
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« Reply #6 on: March 28, 2017, 04:56:03 am »

I was thinking about the fact that this thread specified Westeros from the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and remembered that the books mention "Ibbenese whalers" several times - so whaling is a legitimate part of that world - and yet we never see any whales or hear much about them. One could get creative and imagine massive, deadly, oil-rich leviathans that could be harnessed for a powerful fuel source if people are bold enough to hunt them down.

As for the continent of Westeros itself, as mentioned earlier in this thread, rivers are certainly abundant, so watermills make good sense. There are also many mountain ranges, would could prove to contain some other crystal or mineral more fantastic than coal - though it would be interesting if it had some negative side-effect as a sort of metaphor for pollution.
Not to mention that the Doom of Valyria seems linked to their deep, expansive mining operations and the wyrms they awoke in the hot, sulfuric depths - so that same horrific danger could lurk deep under the mountain ranges of Westeros, if one were foolhardy enough to mine so deep...

Lastly there are the countless regions of the world we never see and barely hear of. Especially in the first two books, faraway lands like the Jade Sea, Asshai by the Shadow, and even more obscure continents are briefly mentioned. There's no telling what realistic or magical power-sources, technology or other materials could be found in those lands and brought to Westeros - either in a constant (or inconstant) flow of trade, or in a single, infamous voyage that leads to a new cash crop, or industry, or method of engineering sweeping over Westeros to challenge the status quo.

Lots of cool stuff to think about! Smiley
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Madasasteamfish
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« Reply #7 on: March 28, 2017, 08:15:14 am »

If you're interested in keeping things 'real world' you could always use a form of nuclear power with a direct substitution of one or more radioactive elements (most of which, as they come out of the ground are pretty much just warm rocks) for coal (and there's how your 'magic crystals' could work).


Don't forget that radioactivity was a 19th century discovery though no one was able to come up with a practical use for it until fission was worked out, and even then there were proposals for nuclear powered vehicles.
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« Reply #8 on: March 28, 2017, 10:34:30 am »

If you're interested in keeping things 'real world' you could always use a form of nuclear power with a direct substitution of one or more radioactive elements (most of which, as they come out of the ground are pretty much just warm rocks) for coal (and there's how your 'magic crystals' could work).


Don't forget that radioactivity was a 19th century discovery though no one was able to come up with a practical use for it until fission was worked out, and even then there were proposals for nuclear powered vehicles.

What about Pebble-bed type reactors using Thorium?

Thorium was discovered in 1828 Thorioum had no applications until 1885, when Carl Auer von Welsbach invented the gas mantle (a portable source of light which produces light from the incandescence of very hot thorium oxide). After 1885, many applications were found for thorium and its compounds, such as in ceramics, carbon arc lamps,

Thorium decays very slowly. It has a half life of 14 billion years or about the lifespan of the universe (Thorium itself is about 10 billion years old). Thorium was first observed to be radioactive in 1898, independently, by the German chemist Gerhard Carl Schmidt and later that year, the Polish-French physicist Marie Curie, but  despite thorium's radioactivity, the element has remained in use for a long time for applications not exploiting the effect as no suitable alternatives could be found.

Quote

THORIUM:

While a 1981 study estimated that a dose from using a thorium mantle every weekend would be safe for a person,[97][98] this was not the case for people manufacturing the mantles (and thus contacting many) as well as soils around some factory sites.[99] A major shift occurred as late as in the 1990s, when most of these applications that do not depend on thorium's radioactivity declined quickly due to safety and environmental concerns as suitable safer replacements have been found.[30][100] Due to concerns, some manufacturers have switched to other materials, such as yttrium, although these are usually either more expensive or less efficient. Other manufacturers continue to make thorium mantles, but moved their factories to developing countries.[98] As recently as 2007, some companies continued to manufacture and sell thorium mantles without giving adequate information about their radioactivity, with some even fraudulently claiming them to be non-radioactive while in reality using large quantities of thorium, up to 259 milligrams per mantle

RADIOLOGICAL TOXICITY

Thorium is odourless and tasteless.[133] As thorium occurs naturally, it exists in very small quantities almost everywhere on Earth: the average human contains about 100 micrograms of thorium and typically consumes three micrograms per day of thorium.[134] This exposure is raised for people who live near uranium, phosphate, or tin processing factories, thorium deposits, radioactive waste disposal sites, and for those who work in uranium, thorium, tin, or phosphate mining or gas mantle production industries.[135] Thorium is especially common in the Tamil Nadu coastal areas of India, where residents may be exposed to a naturally occurring radiation dose ten times higher than the worldwide average.[136] When thorium is ingested, 99.98% does not remain in the body. Out of the thorium that does remain in the body, three quarters of it accumulates in the skeleton. While absorption through the skin is possible, it is not a likely means of thorium exposure.[137]

Natural thorium decays very slowly compared to many other radioactive materials, and the alpha radiation emitted cannot penetrate human skin. As a result, owning and handling small amounts of thorium, such as those in a gas mantle, is considered safe, although usage of such items may pose some risks.[137] Exposure to an aerosol of thorium, such as contaminated dust, can lead to increased risk of cancers of the lung, pancreas, and blood, as lungs and other internal organs can be penetrated by alpha radiation.[137] Exposure to thorium internally leads to increased risk of liver diseases.

GENERATION OF ELECTRICITY

Efforts have been applied to initiate usage of thorium and its radioactivity as a power source; the earliest thorium-based reactor was made in U.S: the first core at the Indian Point Energy Center in 1962.[102] India has one of the largest supplies of thorium in the world but does not have much uranium used elsewhere, and targeted in the 1950s at achieving energy independence for the country with their three-stage nuclear power programme.[103][104] On the other hand, in most countries, the progress staggered because uranium was relatively abundant and the progress of thorium-based reactors was therefore slow (in the 20th century, 3 reactors were opened in India and 12 elsewhere[105]). Large-scale research was begun in 1996 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to study the use of thorium reactors; a year later, the U.S. Energy Department began their research on the matter. Nuclear scientist Alvin Radkowsky of Tel Aviv University in Israel, the head designer of the American first civilian nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania whose third core bred thorium,[106] founded a consortium to develop thorium reactors, which included other companies: Raytheon Nuclear Inc. and Brookhaven National Laboratory in the U.S. and the Kurchatov Institute in Russia.[107] In the 21st century, thorium's potential for improving proliferation resistance and waste characteristics led to renewed interest in the thorium fuel cycle.

PEBBLE-BED REACTORS
A pebble-bed power plant combines a gas-cooled core[4] and a novel packaging of the fuel that dramatically reduces complexity while improving safety.[5]

The uranium, thorium or plutonium nuclear fuels are in the form of a ceramic (usually oxides or carbides) contained within spherical pebbles a little smaller than the size of a tennis ball and made of pyrolytic graphite, which acts as the primary neutron moderator. The pebble design is relatively simple, with each sphere consisting of the nuclear fuel, fission product barrier, and moderator (which in a traditional water reactor would all be different parts). Simply piling enough pebbles together in a critical geometry will allow for criticality.

The pebbles are held in a vessel, and an inert gas (such as helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide) circulates through the spaces between the fuel pebbles to carry heat away from the reactor. Pebble-bed reactors need fire-prevention features to keep the graphite of the pebbles from burning in the presence of air if the reactor wall is breached, although the flammability of the pebbles is disputed. Ideally, the heated gas is run directly through a turbine. However, if the gas from the primary coolant can be made radioactive by the neutrons in the reactor, or a fuel defect could still contaminate the power production equipment, it may be brought instead to a heat exchanger where it heats another gas or produces steam. The exhaust of the turbine is quite warm and may be used to warm buildings or chemical plants, or even run another heat engine.
Much of the cost of a conventional, water-cooled nuclear power plant is due to cooling system complexity. These are part of the safety of the overall design, and thus require extensive safety systems and redundant backups. A water-cooled reactor is generally dwarfed by the cooling systems attached to it. Additional issues are that the core irradiates the water with neutrons causing the water and impurities dissolved in it to become radioactive and that the high-pressure piping in the primary side becomes embrittled and requires continual inspection and eventual replacement.
In contrast, a pebble-bed reactor is gas-cooled, sometimes at low pressures. The spaces between the pebbles form the "piping" in the core. Since there is no piping in the core and the coolant contains no hydrogen, embrittlement is not a failure concern. The preferred gas, helium, does not easily absorb neutrons or impurities. Therefore, compared to water, it is both more efficient and less likely to become radioactive.

When the nuclear fuel increases in temperature, the rapid motion of the atoms in the fuel causes an effect known as Doppler broadening. The fuel then sees a wider range of relative neutron speeds. Uranium-238, which forms the bulk of the uranium in the reactor, is much more likely to absorb fast or epithermal neutrons at higher temperatures. This reduces the number of neutrons available to cause fission, and reduces the power of the reactor. Doppler broadening therefore creates a negative feedback because as fuel temperature increases, reactor power decreases. All reactors have reactivity feedback mechanisms, but the pebble-bed reactor is designed so that this effect is very strong. Also, it is automatic and does not depend on any kind of machinery or moving parts. If the rate of fission increases, temperature will increase and Doppler broadening will occur, decreasing the rate of fission. This creates passive cooling.

Because of this, and because the pebble-bed reactor is designed for higher temperatures, the reactor will passively reduce to a safe power level in an accident scenario. This is the main passive safety feature of the pebble-bed reactor, and it makes the pebble-bed design (as well as most other very-high-temperature reactors) unique from conventional light water reactors which require active safety controls.
The reactor is cooled by an inert, fireproof gas, so it cannot have a steam explosion as a light-water reactor can. The coolant has no phase transitions—it starts as a gas and remains a gas. Similarly, the moderator is solid carbon; it does not act as a coolant, move, or have phase transitions (i.e., between liquid and gas) as the light water in conventional reactors does.

A pebble-bed reactor thus can have all of its supporting machinery fail, and the reactor will not crack, melt, explode or spew hazardous wastes. It simply goes up to a designed "idle" temperature, and stays there. In that state, the reactor vessel radiates heat, but the vessel and fuel spheres remain intact and undamaged. The machinery can be repaired or the fuel can be removed. These safety features were tested (and filmed) with the German AVR reactor.[6] All the control rods were removed, and the coolant flow was halted. Afterward, the fuel balls were sampled and examined for damage and there was none.
« Last Edit: March 28, 2017, 10:42:37 am by J. Wilhelm » Logged

morozow
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« Reply #9 on: March 28, 2017, 10:39:14 am »

Why kill the whales when there are dragons? Let them warm boilers of steam engines.
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« Reply #10 on: March 28, 2017, 06:06:03 pm »

Why kill the whales when there are dragons? Let them warm boilers of steam engines.
Have you ever tried to keep a dragon fed?
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« Reply #11 on: March 28, 2017, 08:03:09 pm »

Why kill the whales when there are dragons? Let them warm boilers of steam engines.
Have you ever tried to keep a dragon fed?

Feed them whales, of course!
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19th Century Space Pilot
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« Reply #12 on: March 28, 2017, 08:13:08 pm »

Well, we don't have dragons here on this world.

Leaving aside the use of magic, what would it be like? Say, a society developing after a few thousand years of post-apocalypse, so all the easy fossil fuel has been used up?
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Madasasteamfish
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« Reply #13 on: March 28, 2017, 08:45:25 pm »

Well, we don't have dragons here on this world.

Leaving aside the use of magic, what would it be like? Say, a society developing after a few thousand years of post-apocalypse, so all the easy fossil fuel has been used up?

Probably very close to 19th century Europe. Even discounting a complete 'reset' in terms of knowledge and technology, the main power sources would almost certainly be based around naturally occurring phenomena and what's readily available in the vicinity. So really you're looking at wind and or water powered generators for electricity and/or large scale projects like any kind of production facility (possibly geothermal energy near hot springs) with sheer muscle power (either animal or human depending on the status of slavery) for smaller machinery or tasks and most land based transport with wood/dung/charcoal for heat.

Steam power/external combustion engines would probably develop/be rediscovered reasonably early on since if you can burn something, you can run a steam engine off it (and stirling engines are even simpler since they just need a heat differential to work). So tbh any society that exists a few thousand years after any apocalyptic event would probably look akin to our own, albeit reliant on some form of combustible material rather than fossil fuels.
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« Reply #14 on: March 29, 2017, 08:18:01 am »

Well, we don't have dragons here on this world.

Leaving aside the use of magic, what would it be like? Say, a society developing after a few thousand years of post-apocalypse, so all the easy fossil fuel has been used up?

Probably very close to 19th century Europe. Even discounting a complete 'reset' in terms of knowledge and technology, the main power sources would almost certainly be based around naturally occurring phenomena and what's readily available in the vicinity. So really you're looking at wind and or water powered generators for electricity and/or large scale projects like any kind of production facility (possibly geothermal energy near hot springs) with sheer muscle power (either animal or human depending on the status of slavery) for smaller machinery or tasks and most land based transport with wood/dung/charcoal for heat.

Steam power/external combustion engines would probably develop/be rediscovered reasonably early on since if you can burn something, you can run a steam engine off it (and stirling engines are even simpler since they just need a heat differential to work). So tbh any society that exists a few thousand years after any apocalyptic event would probably look akin to our own, albeit reliant on some form of combustible material rather than fossil fuels.

The question here is how will be able to restore / create infrastructure. Because you need a fairly smooth highway or railway.

But in principle, the Roman roads are still. This means that only the expense of the labor of masses of people, you can create them.
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« Reply #15 on: March 31, 2017, 01:53:32 pm »

The thing that bothers me so much is that an alternative past without steam engines is somewhat improbable given the availability of the decomposing and formerly saurian-era black coloured stuff and similar substances such as peat. If mineral coal is not available, then everything that can be exploited still remains as a hydrocarbon or organic-molecule fuel. Say natural gas, for example, and one can assume that oil production and the invention of petrol was just advanced a little bit (as noth were known in the 19th. C. So in the end you still have a similar development of technology, as Mr. Madasasteamfish says... I guess mineral coal was just very easy and obvious to exploit and that is why it came first.
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morozow
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« Reply #16 on: March 31, 2017, 04:40:23 pm »

The thing that bothers me so much is that an alternative past without steam engines is somewhat improbable given the availability of the decomposing and formerly saurian-era black coloured stuff and similar substances such as peat. If mineral coal is not available, then everything that can be exploited still remains as a hydrocarbon or organic-molecule fuel. Say natural gas, for example, and one can assume that oil production and the invention of petrol was just advanced a little bit (as noth were known in the 19th. C. So in the end you still have a similar development of technology, as Mr. Madasasteamfish says... I guess mineral coal was just very easy and obvious to exploit and that is why it came first.

He didn't just come first. He carried progress to the next step.

Is concentrated energy and it is convenient and easy to get.

In principle, steam machines, alternative to coal can serve as firewood and peat. But wood, with a strong use - ultimate. And peat is not so convenient.

Well, we have locomotives on wood. But because you still have to heat the iron furnace. It is necessary to heat their homes. But will soon run out of Sherwood forest?

Even now coal is ~ 30% of the world energy balance.

Probably it is possible and without coal. But I think the development will be slow. Well, or due to some happy accident. Leonardo da Vinci saw the burning oil, did an oil burner with a nozzle.
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« Reply #17 on: April 04, 2017, 06:20:46 pm »

You could try heating the boilers with the heat of rotting organic matter (meaning both plant refuse and garbage, perhaps even the addition of human or animal waste; i.e., a really large compost bin; thus wringing double duty from a single process). Unfortunately, while compost actually does get really hot, I'm not sure if it could actually boil water unless it catches fire. An alternative could be methane gas from the compost being used as fuel, I suppose.
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« Reply #18 on: July 16, 2017, 12:00:23 pm »

Some places like the American West don't have a lot of coal, so trains were rare. Somehow though, Seattle got all the lumber to build San Francisco by sliding logs downhdownhill to the waterfront, and then loaded the logs onto ships, and then down the Pacific. A few years later they built the Hoover dam and the grand coulee dam to power the cities, and finally they made nuclear plants. I don't know everything but I think the WE coal plant in kenosha, wi is the farthest West coal plant I can think of.
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« Reply #19 on: July 17, 2017, 07:06:24 am »

Some places like the American West don't have a lot of coal, so trains were rare. Somehow though, Seattle got all the lumber to build San Francisco by sliding logs downhdownhill to the waterfront, and then loaded the logs onto ships, and then down the Pacific. A few years later they built the Hoover dam and the grand coulee dam to power the cities, and finally they made nuclear plants. I don't know everything but I think the WE coal plant in kenosha, wi is the farthest West coal plant I can think of.

Most of the maor coal burners are east of the Mississippi, but there are one or two big ones and quite a few smaller plants out west,
most notabley the Navajo Generating Station in the Four Corners ( ie N.E. Arizona):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_largest_coal_power_stations_in_the_United_States

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« Reply #20 on: July 18, 2017, 01:47:09 pm »

Perhaps a steam train would work, albeit with a lot more labour than on an iron-railed railway, upon a stone plateway or wagonway?

Some logging tramays of the world had wooden rails.

Also, a steam engine could be run on oil instead of coal; though this would have the same problem as an IC engine, having little coal and no other means to make enough metal items you have to somehow work out how they come up with the engines.
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« Reply #21 on: July 18, 2017, 06:12:05 pm »

I remember reading about an English steel company that switched to charcoal for a brief time when there was a coal shortage. They used up thousands of acres of timber.
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« Reply #22 on: July 26, 2017, 05:43:04 pm »

IIRC, historically timber was not usually "clear cut" for charcoal burning- either they burned the "trimmings" from trees  cut for large timber, or used "coppicing"- where trees are cut down and the stumps allowed to shoot again, producing poles that can be cut again after a few years for use as timber, or burnt for charcoal ( Sweet Chestnut plantations in parts of Kent were still managed this way until about 20 years ago, cut on rotations from 3 years up to 20 depending on intended use).
Charcoal was the main fuel of the iron industry throughout the Early Modern period, until Darby's invention of coke fired smelting in 1709, making cast iron cheaper to produce in quantity.

It's also worth mentioning that the first stages of the Industrial Revolution- division of labour and the mechanisation of textile production- actually pre-date Watt's steam engine. Textile mills initially were water powered, hence the name.
So the OP (IMO)is about right- you could have a technological revolution, but think Regency tech rather than Victorian.
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« Reply #23 on: July 27, 2017, 01:44:08 pm »

Just pull the moon a lot closer and harness gravity.
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« Reply #24 on: July 28, 2017, 08:41:00 am »

Water power. Water wheels are everywhere. Machine belts run through the cities to transfer power to dry places. Spring-winding stations use water power to wind springs to power vehicles and portable devices.
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