Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Science-Fiction: What could impede the use of electricity on half of Mars?

  1. Aug 23, 2012 #1
    Hello. I’m a new addition to the board, and if I’ve posted in the wrong place or this is otherwise unwelcome, please PM me and let me know.

    I’m a writer and I’m working on a science-fiction novel set on Mars in the distant future. I can gather most of the information on the planet, the requirements for living on it, and the theories on terraforming elsewhere, but I have one problem for which I would appreciate the input of more knowledgeable people.

    I have need for a plausible explanation on why half the world would be able to use electricity and the other would not. I have toyed with the idea of random electromagnetic pulses (or a constant electromagnetic pulse) that interferes with the majority of electrical devices and equipment, though as I understand it, older and solid state technology might be immune to electromagnetic pulse. My question, I suppose, is what explanation in our modern technology would explain the occurrence of repetitive electromagnetic pulses? I’m foregoing nuclear explosions, and I would prefer as natural a phenomenon as readers would find believable. Theory is quite welcome if nothing in our reality could cause such events.

    Any response is welcome. If the novel is published, I would be happy to include people in a “special thanks” page for contributions that help me create this world. Thanks, everyone.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 23, 2012 #2


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I can't think of anything natural and realistic without messing with Mars orbital characteristics and the Sun. Perhaps Mars has tilted on its axis so that one pole faces the Sun at all times, as well as the Sun putting out far more solar flares and CME's that would cause technology to be near useless. There's also man-made things, such as subterfuge by a controlling organization or some long lost technology.
  4. Aug 23, 2012 #3
    It's easier to come up with sociological or political reasons than physics reasons. Assume that half of Mars is settled by Amish farmers. Alternatively assume some political reason (i.e. half of Korea has cell phones and internet, the other half doesn't.)

    Also, it's very likely that it's going to be very hard to create a power grid, so it's possible that half of Mars can't use electricity because the power lines haven't gotten set up.

    One problem with nuclear explosions is that without a magnetic field or atmosphere, a nuclear explosion won't produce an EMP.
  5. Aug 23, 2012 #4
    Were you thinking that the half would be a contiguous hemisphere? I don't think that makes sense. Instead, the area would need to be something like a band around the equator or a radius around each of the poles, adding up to half of the planet's area.

    If I were you I would try to elaborate some ideas around Tin Whiskers: http://nepp.nasa.gov/whisker/

    Imagine Tin Whiskers were more prevalent and more pernicious in Mars due to the low gravity, terraformed atmosphere, lack of magnetic field, solar interference, unexplained causes, etc, in some way correlated to the geographic latitude. Perhaps those same areas are rich in some valuable rare element, giving your book characters a reason to live there...

    Electricity would be deemed expensive and unsafe on those affected parts of the planet, perhaps on par with nuclear energy on earth - requiring expert engineering, special government permission, etc. So even though electricity would "work", it really wouldn't be available to the whole population. Perhaps it's something only the military and criminals would have access in serious applications, and even then it still would be dangerous and unreliable? There would be no electric grid. Battery-operated appliances brought from other parts of the planet would die out within a few minutes of operation, leaving an unmistakable smell of ionized metal in the (man-mixed) air :-) There would be horrible stories of people poked in the eye by a tin whisker suddenly growing out of clandestinely imported electrical equipment. Eventually the population just gives up and anyone seen with playing with electricity or illicit electrical devices is immediately suspected of terrorism and arrested.

    Let me know if you use the ideas... I'd like a copy of your book :) Thanks
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2012
  6. Aug 27, 2012 #5
    it Does not need to be EMP at all, and Atrchi's suggestion merits investigation.

    One Idea I had is the continuous sand storms generating an overwhelming amount of atmospheric static electricity. Without a relatively high moisture content in the air to act as a ready made conduit to the ground this likely means the lighting on mars could be more significant (or not to actual knowledge here)

    Metal Attracts lighting strikes, Free electricity you say? not if it hits a vehicle with delicate electronics. And Lighting Towers would require constant attention to make sure they function. Damage from Melting and corrosion being significant. Power lines would also be venerable to Corrosion and these strikes causing overloads, all which could damage electronics and maybe even melt the line.

    The only real solution would either bury your settlements to reduce damage (which isn't always viable) or to make settlements with as little metal parts as possible. (Probably using Ceramic Composites or plastic/Plastic substitutes. (there is a Company in Europe some where I heard that is making plastics from Olives.)

    Anyway thats my two cents
  7. Aug 27, 2012 #6


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    How would people survive on Mars without electricity to power their closed ecosystems? Or are you envisioning this so far in the future that the planet has been terraformed to the extent that hunter gatherers could thrive? If the latter then the huge scientific and industrial capacity that the setting's civilisation clearly has would trump most obstacles like this.

    My advice would be to go for some sort of authoritarian intervention. A terraformed planet would have all the necessary components for near total control, ultra-low powered micro-UAVs the size of small insects could allow total surveillance across the planet (look up smart dust for similar ideas) which would be necessary for the study and regulation of the various ecosystems. Settlements would likewise have ubiquitous monitoring as in the early days they would be dependent on it for ensuring environmental control. You could posit a regime that cuts off services and technology to various regions of the planet as punishment or preventative measures for stopping uprisings (of course mass stinging with nerve agent by the micro-UAVs would work too...)
  8. Aug 28, 2012 #7
    I think what we really need is more "Setting" information. What time Frame are we looking at? How Colonized is Mars A few Hundred, Few Thousands? or millions and billions? For how long? why is "Half a world with out Power" is required? is this temporary? or permanently?

    Also, there is many ways People can survive without electrical power, it just requires other ways of storing and releasing the energy, Chemical storage comes to mind as the easiest to achieve. Not to say it would be easy to design, Build, or even very safe to operate but building a car with no metal is possible.

    Many systems could use Mechanical Computers, and control systems. All this can be accomplished by using non metals or non conductive materials, such as plastics or ceramics.

    The Atmosphere can be accounted for in the design, and plantlife (algae or even food plants) can provide all the O2 a person needs to breath. There is no such thing as a closed ecosystem. or really a closed system anything out side of theoretical models. The best one can hope for is a self-sustaining system where the system provides all the material for maintaining said system, this still requires Energy input as well as "waste" management (usually thermal).

    I'm not saying it would be a pleasant life, but many humans thrive in harsh environments. look at any people that live within the arctic circle. or in the Gobi or Sahara Deserts
  9. Aug 28, 2012 #8
    Here's another idea. Assuming your setting is a terraformed Mars, it might include a man-made planetary magnetic field to keep solar flares from eroding the atmosphere. Perhaps the planetary magnetic field technology is so 'primitive' that it creates problems for electricity on half the planet (some of the earlier comments apply).
  10. Aug 30, 2012 #9
    I've got three ideas (and counting:

    1. "Prison Planet" - in the original novelization of "the Postman" there are no more radio stations. The protagonist makes up a theory that orbital-based weapons are programmed to home in on and attack any sources of radio waves. He doesn't know but the other characters just buy into it. Targetting any large-scale power plant from orbit with kinetic or nuclear weapons or reentry-capable rocket would be child's play for a civilization that's regularily transhipping goods and colonists between Earth and Mars.

    2. "Orbital Jamming" - a variant of Prison Planet. A derilict space ship or purpose-made satelite is emitting huge quantities of electromagnetic radiaton or radioactive particles into the upper atmosphere. Without a magnetic field or atmosphere to speak of, Mars would not produce the hemisphere-wide corona that setting off nukes in the Van Allen belts would but its possible it could elevate the background electromagnetic field directly underneath it. (the power output would have to be beyond the pale or rediculous)

    3. "Superstorm" - I remember a book series (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) where colonists on Mars dug a thermal borehole in order to terraform Mars. The result was a decades-long storm that covered a significant portion of the planet. The rising heat from the borehole created a weather system that generated huge winds and electrical activity. As mentioned above, lots of lightning won't eliminate ALL electrical usage but goodbye radio transmissions and goodbye surface power grids.

    4. "metal-eating microbes" - pure cheese but it works. On earth, post of our power sources are made of zinc, copper and iron. Having an area teeming with bacteria that use one fo these metals as a metabolite drastically shortens the operating life of almost any object powered by electricity:



    There would also be all kinds of other consequences as well but preventing the inhabitants of a contaminated area from "sterilizing" the bacteria (either through extremely hardy/resistant bacteria or lack of access to sterilizing agents/equipment) would be all you need to severely handicap the development of widespread use of electricity in that area.
  11. Aug 30, 2012 #10
    Everyone: Thanks for the replies on my post, your time and your knowledge and invention. I should have responded sooner, but I did want to give everyone a chance to interact with each other and all.

    For the purposes of my sci-fi world, I am planning on a full hemisphere lacking electricity, but it’s not necessary that it be so precise as it starts at the 0-degree longitudinal line and extends to the 180-degree line. Say that the western hemisphere doesn’t have electricity, the eastern does, and at least as characters discuss the matter conversationally, that will be an accurate description. The shape and concentration of this “dead space” will be determined by the solution I ultimately rely on.

    For the sake of understanding what I’m planning, imagine one-half of the planet Mars living in the 23rd century, the other half living in the equivalent of 19th-century England. My thought so far is that terraforming has been ongoing for about two-hundred years, the process is still happening, allowing enough air for moving around without oxygen masks, enough atmospheric pressure to excuse the use of suits, heat to allow warm temperatures, but especially in the west, more deserts than oases or jungles. Small farms, ranches, that kind of thing would supply food for the have-nots of the western hemisphere. I’ve also toyed with the idea of forming oceans on the planet, maybe from engineered crashes of comets, that sort of thing, to supply the water. I’m not imagining the coverage of oceans we have here on earth, but more than Mars could naturally supply. At least, that idea will live or die depending on how ridiculous it sounds to the more astronomically-inclined than me.

    In the end, I’m going for plausible more than 100%-provable estimations on Mars of the future. A “warp drive” solution, something that can be hypothesized, even if it’s not likely to hold when vetted over the next hundred years.

    My three ideas (maybe two in combination with each other) have magnetic fields/pulses, thunderstorms, and human factors to explain the absence of electricity. Posts have been great at suggesting these things, and fleshing out some vague ideas I’ve had. As atrchi suggested, a man-made magnetic field that’s either flawed or degenerates, or is made with the intention to supply the east at the expense of the west, that seems to be strongest idea for me so far. I’m quite intrigued by the “tin whiskers” mentioned as well—I will look into those, see how likely the production of metals on my fictional Mars will jibe with that idea, how the east might overcome the problem while the west cannot. I’ve had ideas about random pulses (of a non-nuclear origin) that also knock out devices, but the corrupt man-made magnetic field might explain something like that better. Nimbian’s notion of high static electricity caused by sand storms causing eroding or overloading of electric components as well. I’ve had thoughts that maybe the introductions of oceans leads to bad rain and lightning storms that produce similar effects in the western hemisphere, but not the eastern.

    I’ve also thought, as far as the human factor goes, there is less of an authoritarian intervention and more of a prohibition mindset. For people living without electricity on a planet that isn’t ripe with food and comfort, a large contingent believing the wealth and luxury of the eastern hemisphere is sinful could be an explanation for why there aren’t more attempts to introduce electricity into the landscape. I think this works best with some initial limitation, hence working in combination with one or more of the ideas I mentioned above.

    That’s where I am with the scientific background of the book at the moment. I imagine I’ll eventually produce five books set in the world, and I’d like to start the first in September. I have the outline already written, awaiting any revision that needs to be done in the wake of the background ideas I use.

    Again, thanks for the ideas, they’ve really made me think about the possibilities. PM me if you would like your names to appear in the “special thanks” page, I would be happy to recognize you.
  12. Aug 31, 2012 #11


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    A quick post as I'm short on time. Given the Martian Dichotomy Rather than East/West have you thought about North/South? The drastic differences between these two hemispheres are more significant and could play into your story.

    Also I'm wondering how believable it is that so much effort would be put into terraforming and colonising another planet only to allow half of it to be a sparsely populated low tech zone. It seems to me that whatever the reason the technologically advanced half (as well as the nations elsewhere in the system that I presume undertook this terraform endeavour) would be constantly working to solve the problem and move in. That could even be an interesting plot device as the "pastoral" characters lament that this phenomenon is all that keeps them "free".

    On the ocean side you are definitely going to need them. Without a hydrological cycle you won't get a biosphere and without that no one is going to survive outside of a technologically advanced closed-ecosystem.

    Lastly whatever phenomenon it is giving a reason as to why the other hemisphere is immune is going to be important. Because of this anything that could affect the whole world (magnetic field etc) probably isn't that useful.

    Closed just means no mass comes in or out, energy still can (one where neither go in or out is called an isolated system). Earth is pretty much a closed ecosystem, we get some asteroid matter in and atmosphere blowing off but it's inconsequential wrt to the biosphere.
  13. Aug 31, 2012 #12
    Correct me if I'm wrong but Mars has either en extremely weak or no magnetic field. Eath's magnetic field is what keeps Earth relatively safe from solar radiation. Mars has the advantage of distance.

    what if there were some (phenominally difficult) means of generating or enhancing a magnetic field artificially? Such a field could be intermittent at times, especially if ill-maintained. That would allow magnetic phenomena like auroras at the magnetic poles, as well as magnetic fluctuations that could impair electric devices. At this point though, you're entering the realm of "force fields".

    Those living at the equator would see minimal interruption but those at the north or south could face frequent interruption.

    A society deliberately abandoning maintenance on some "dark tower" or network of magnetic field generators for quasi-religious reasons would surely piss off the rest of the planet (after all, they're endangering others). The only serious problem with that is that the high-tech "side" would still be capable of vastly superior materials science (i.e. soldiers with factory-built automatic weapons and body armor vs hand-made leather jerkins, homespun shirts and hand-made AK-47s). An unstable magnetic field won't level the playing field against a bullet that can be fired from over 2-3 miles away (lower Martian gravity means less bullet arc and longer flying times. A trained Martian Sniper would be scary and the high-tech side would have far more accurate weapons).
  14. Aug 31, 2012 #13


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I expect that in the nearish future guns and foot soldiers will be mostly for show or niche applications as drones from insect to B52 size take over all other roles. A society that can terraform a planet doesnt strike me as the kind that would still be waring with bullets anymore than we fight with sticks and stones lol.
  15. Sep 5, 2012 #14
    To quote more authors than I can even remember:

    There will ALWAYS be a need for soldiers on the battlefield.

    Any sort of remote-control aircraft, vehicle or humanoid surrogate will only take you so far. Transmissions can be jammed and any kind of fully-autonomous or swarm-logic war machine is a flat-out TERRIBLE idea. You immediately run into the Frankenstien's monster problem of creating a weapon you can't destroy should something go wrong OR a weapon with an obvious achiles heel the rest of the time.

    In fact, the BOLO series is based largely upon that very problem. No matter how vestigial, a human pilot or operator will always be a necessary component of a weapons system. After all, mankind has had 10,000 years or more to learn the ins and outs of the way humans fail. An automated drone will surprise us in new ways for at least as long.

    And then there's the specific problem posed in this thread of a society living in an area where automated war machines simply can't venture without being destroyed. Human footsoldiers would be the only option no matter how "antiquated". To quote a phrase...
  16. Sep 5, 2012 #15


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I think that depends highly on what you define as the battlefield. Drone operators can sit in Nevada while their aircraft fights a war across the globe. Are they in the battlefield?

    Currently yes. But we have no idea what the capabilities of future technology will be.

    Weapons are not "all or none" objects. Even a glaring weakness can be compensated for by various means including tactics, strategy, and especially upgrades.

    I seriously doubt you can reasonably justify this. A work of science fiction does not count as reasonable justification, they are meant to explore different themes and other matters, not provide technical details on realistic future possibilities.
  17. Sep 6, 2012 #16
    Bah humbug.

    I had a huge post explaining the Math behind this but I a apparently used the window by accident for research.

    In Human history guerrilla forces have had a long and mostly successful conflicts. Almost by definition they are a Lower tech force engaging a Higher tech force.

    Long Story Short I had all the math and all the steps as I worked on it for an Hour before I lost it here is the highlights of ReaverKing's AK47 vs "Unknown Energy Weapon"

    The below Logic experiment uses the Effective range and time of AK47 Bullets as the target Standard.
    The Proposed armor is a Plate of Silicon Carbide ceramic, weighing 5kg, (I understand that design would play a critical role in how much a armor would be able to take, But for simplicity sake the above is a solid Brest plate.) at the Edge of effective range for the AK-47, 400m. One shot will take 0.55 Sec to reach its target

    To Melt 5kg of Silicon Carbide (a commonly used Ceramic in today's armor) it takes 8308 kJ
    To pass thru a Volume of air (without deviation) that is a cylinder that is 1cm in diameter, while only raising the air temperature 100c Costs approx 7.485 kJ

    Meaning each shot costs 8315.485kJ per shot. or aprox 15.12 Megawatts. (W=Jules/Seconds) or 94.34 MeV

    A typical wind turbine (or wind energy converter) has a power capacity of 1 to 3 MW
    you would Need 5 - 15 Wind turbines to power your "Lethal Flashlight"

    The total amount of energy produced in the 21H + 32He reaction is 18.4 MeV, which corresponds to some 493 megawatt-hours (4.93×108 W·h) per three grams (one mole) of ³He. (Source)
    Using the Above reaction (provided you got is shrunk down to a portable size.) Each Shot would still consume roughly 15g of fuel.

    The Typical Projectile for an Ak47 weighs 8g
  18. Sep 6, 2012 #17


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    We can't know that and as Drakkith points out there are subtlies. To expand a bit the definition of a battlefield can change as can the role and definition of a soldier. It seems likely that IRL within a few decades teams of soldiers will be directly supported by a variety of drones ranging from the size of fighter jets to micro air vehicles the size of birds or even insects. In many situations a soldier may be relegated to giving orders to the drones in real time as they track the progress.
    I don't see how that necessarily follows. You seem to have made a jump from autonomous drone to self-perpetuating conscious entity.
    You realise the fallacy of making absolute claims about the future right? Also the 10,000 years figure is misleading. Firstly our species is far older and secondly it really isn't that hard to envision machines easily programed to kill humans. Attach an Xbox Kinect to a gun and program to shoot in the middle (a silly example but it illustrates the point).
    The original point of bringing drones into the conversation was to suggest a mechanism by which a population was kept subdued.
  19. Sep 6, 2012 #18
    I was originally upset but its almost refrereshing to have to completely clarify my reasoning like this... almost.

    The original post in this thread was looking for ways to suppress devices that used electricity over the majority of a planetary hemispehere. Said suppression of electronic computers or electrically-powered machines means that any kind of automated drone force would simply break down or cease to function upon entering the "suppressed" zone. Barring some really creative engineering involving diesel engines and photon-based computers, I cannot think of any type of "drone" more advanced than a kite or hot air balloon that would function in such an environment. A drone or robot army operating in such an area is a bit of a non-sequiter.

    Secondly, I am aware that fiction is not fact. The reason I use fiction as an example is because I have a fine arts background and I feel that saying "we have no idea what the capabilities of future technology will be" is just a way of saying "Shut up and stop speculating". My intention in bringing up works of fiction is to compare themes in fiction to the issue under discussion. While the technical challenges inherent in developing autonomous weapons are many, the issue of controlling and deploying such devices in the field are another set altogether. The BOLO series deals with primarily the second category.

    For starters there are questions like: how do you turn the weapon on? How do you turn it off? How do you keep the enemy from using it or turning it off? What happens if the weapon mistakes your troops for the enemy? How do you keep the enemy from exploiting any fail-safes that protect your own troops? What happens when the weapon loses contact with the human operator (if any)? These questions do not require detailed technological answers to reveal that small changes in design strongly impact the usability, effectiveness, and reliability of any weapons system from rocks to fighter jets to nuclear bombs. Is the device some sort of Nimean Lion or Death Star that is invulnerable save for some intentionally included or overlooked flaw that renders it far less effective than it otherwise could have been? Or is it just as unstoppable if it is turned against you instead of your enemies? Despite chasing it to the North Pole, Frankensiten was ultimately unable to destroy the monster he had created. Intelligence in this context is secondary to the inability to stop your own creationg from turning against you.

    As the destructive potential of a weapon rises or the human control over a weapons system is reduced, there is an increased risk of a fault with the device leading to ever-increasing levels of disaster. New safeguards can be installed after the fact but preventing the disaster by requiring a human input is a time-tested safeguard in and of iteself. Sure an army of Terminators is easy to imagine. That doesn't mean anyone short of a madman will build them without requiring them to have direct oversight by a human operator. "Direct" in this case beign a somewhat flexible term. I see real-world StarCraft long, long before Skynet. Probably Forever.

    That is why I make the claim that a weapons system that does not include a human operator carries significantly more (and largely unnecessary) risk to both sides of a conflict than any weapons system that does. It may lean toward being a moral position but it is still fact that at least as far as we can project, a human operator of some kind operating a weapon from within the combat space or remote-operating a weapons system from outside the combat space (which is what I meant by "on the battlefield") will remain a necessary safeguard on all weapons systems. Probably Forever.
  20. Sep 6, 2012 #19


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Two things Reaver. First, you may be talking about THEMES, but I feel this thread is more about the technical aspects and not about the themes.

    Second, your idea that not including a human operator increases the risk to both sides of a conflict is pure speculation and focuses only on the negative possibilities. Have you considered that automated weapons may be MORE BENEFICIAL to both sides? Or that new weapons may not be more destructive, but LESS destructive? Weapons of massive destructive potential are NOT as useful as they once were. That is why the military developed guided weapons; to reduce expenditure of resources, to reduce collateral damage, to reduce non-combatant casualties of the enemy nation, etc
  21. Sep 6, 2012 #20
    Along that line perhaps you should center your Electricity free zone around the Hellas Basin

    For the following reason
    Surprisingly, many of the dust storms on the planet originate from one impact basin. Hellas Basin is the deepest impact crater in the Solar System. It was formed more than three billion years ago during the Late Bombardment Period when a very large asteroid hit the surface of Mars. The temperatures at the bottom of the crater can be 10 degrees warmer than on the surface and the crater is deeply filled with dust. The difference in temperature fuels wind action that picks up the dust, then storm emerge from the basin.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Science-Fiction: What could impede the use of electricity on half of Mars?
  1. Science fiction concepts (Replies: 16)

  2. Science Fiction idea (Replies: 5)