Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Post-Apocalyptic Chemist: Fuels. "Fertilizers." and "Fire"

You've seen Rick and the group from The Walking Dead find a new car, start it up, and drive away. It happens in other post-apocalyptic stories, too. Cars driven away after a long time of sitting still somewhere.

The Mad Max dystopia deals with this issue by putting refineries in its story world, but other post-apocalyptic story universes don't do that to my knowledge. Guess what? Fuels within a vehicle go bad due to their volatile nature in usually 3 to 6 months. Sometimes they make it all the way to a year, but not more than that (according to what I've read).

The Walking Dead Wiki states 547 days have passed in the story timeline from the beginning of Season 1 to the end of Season 6. Which means, none of the cars should be running anymore. Even the fuel in fuel trucks should have gone bad.

(Photo: Fuel truck from Mad Max Fury Road)

What this means for story realism is there are a number of things about fuels you should considered (but perhaps haven't):

1. Fuel additives that boost octane and stabilize fuels would be premium items to recover on supply runs after several months into the apocalypse. Adding pure distilled alcohol would help some, too. For a while--until not even they could help cars designed to run gasoline, after the gasoline goes totally bad.

2. Diesel cars would go through a definite phase of popularity. That's because diesel fuel can last longer than gasoline. Most regular cars would not run after 6 months to a year. The diesels might keep working an extra six months or so.

3. "Flex fuel" cars would be the only vehicles that would last long-term. Why? Because they can run on ethanol without suffering damage, though even they use some gasoline in their ethanol mix. (Note that ethanol works less effectively as a fuel in cold weather than warm weather due to it not burning as quickly as gasoline/petrol. I guess that means no winter driving in some places.)

4. Homemade fuel would become very important. Those who knew how to distill alcohol to make fuel would be engaging in a vital skill needed to maintain transportation and defense. Biodiesel would be important, too, though I imagine more people know how to make moonshine than diesel. (And besides, people would want to drink the booze.)

All the above situations would mean that a team of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world would need a POST-APOCALYPTIC CHEMIST on the team quite badly, even if an amateur one, to mix and make fuels.

And IF we are going to have a chemist of some kind as part of all the best teams in the zombie (and other flavor) apocalypses, that means there should be some other things the team chemists should care about, substances they would know about that relate to solutions to many potential problems, especially Fertilizers. Why? (Not so much for growing crops:)

A. Ammonium nitrate, which is a very common type of manufactured fertilizer, makes an excellent explosive. Just add a bit of fuel oil such as diesel and add a blasting cap or other starting device and BOOM. Therefore:

B. Building bombs would be a very common type of post-apocalyptic activity. The materials for making them are everywhere and they can do a lot of damage (the Taliban in Afghanistan sure managed to make a lot of them from basic materials). Why enter at a possibly-trapped enemy door when you can blow a hole in the wall? Why risk a tank or other heavy vehicle from "the governor" running up on you when you can lay wired-up pipe bombs underground, defending your perimeter? The zombie apocalypse team that could master bomb making (which really isn't that hard and which DOES relate to making fuel) would dominate groups who didn't have explosives.

C. Fertilizer plants that make ammonium nitrate would be key targets of supply runs. Smart team chemists would key into that. Owning and possessing supplies of fertilizer would be a important, perhaps life-or-death resource. Note that urea is also used to make fertilizer--and when treated with nitric acid, makes explosives as well as does ammonium nitrate. So urea fertilizer plants would matter, too.

D. Urine can be evaporated down to make urea, a building block of urea nitrate, another fine explosive component. For strict, albeit stinky realism, pools of drying urine should be seen at least sometimes in post-apocalyptic worlds. That is, if there's a team chemist and if there are no fertilizer plants nearby.  (Yes, it really is possible to make your pee into a explosive device!)

Note when more bullets are fired, leaving guns useless, the more important it will be to find something else to give an edge against others who might have guns. Without at least basic chemistry, any post-apocalyptic world winds up relying on hand-held weapons, clubs, hammers, spears, and a sword if you're lucky. With the help of a chemist, bombs can become a reality to help even the odds.

But people will also seek a replacement for the types of portable weapons that can kill at a distance, i.e. guns. Therefore it will also be important for the team chemist to work to develop new ways to Fire at an enemy.

I. Gunpowder would become the Holy Grail for the post-apocalyptic chemist. Note that quite a few Americans make their own bullets and use commercial gunpowder to do so. But eventually all that is going to run out. Until it does, it will be important, but once it's gone, chemists are going to try to replace that commercial gunpowder if they possibly can. However, I think modern smokeless gunpowder would be difficult for a lot of chemists operating without a plant to make. (In fact it's a lot easier to make explosives than the gunpowder used in modern bullets.) But please note that black powder is significantly easier to make than modern gunpowder. Therefore:

II. Black powder rifles would enjoy a resurgence of sorts. Sure, they aren't as fast as even a bolt-action rifle, let alone an assault weapon.  But they make an intimidatingly huge amount of noise when you might need some intimidation. When you master them, they can deliver a killing shot at a significant distance. And if you could make gunpowder and simple round bullets on your own, you could fire them without limit. Perhaps that would bring back shooters firing in ranks at an enemy, especially when protecting fortified walls...

III. Rockets of various kinds can be made with black powder as a propellant and other simple propellants. With bullets running low, a homemade rocket could be a way to replace the distance attack capacity of a gun, especially if it carried a warhead with explosives. The big problem--accuracy. Handmade rockets are not very accurate. But if you have enough of them, accuracy doesn't matter as much.

IV. Cannons and simple artillery should make a comeback too. The modern world has no shortage of high-quality metal pipes to make into cannons both large and small. Historically, even rocks can be shot from a black-powder cannon (and there certainly would be no shortage of rocks in a post-apocalyptic world :).

So you know the Walking Dead community, the Hilltop, the guys that were growing their own food and using spears for weapons? They seriously 
also should have been making bombs and rockets, and fuel, too. Really!

Chemists doing so in a post-apocalyptic world would be very realistic. :)