Technology: Synthetic Fossil Fuels

“Fossil fuels in the last century reached their extreme prices because of their inherent utility: they pack a great deal of potential energy into an extremely efficient package. If we can but sidestep the 100 million year production process, we can corner this market once again.”

— CEO Nwabudike Morgan, Strategy Session

The ability to create Synthetic Fossil Fuels in large quantities on Planet is considered a fourth-tier exploration technology in SMAC.  It requires Gene Splicing and High Energy Chemistry to unlock.  And when it is researched it enables the discovering faction to build units with the Missile Launcher weapon and terraformers with the Fungicide Tanks special.  Overall, these are solid but not spectacular benefits.

The bare fact that this tech even exists on the tree in the position it does is almost certainly more interesting than anything it does in the game.  Why aren’t there significant native hydrocarbon deposits for the player to discover?  After all, the game has already determined that the biology of life on Planet is very similar to that on Earth.  And, on Earth, our non-renewable hydrocarbon deposits come from dead biomass and the many millions of years that CEO Morgan refers to.  There’s no obvious reason to believe the chemistry would work significantly differently in the alien ecosystem.

Looking more closely at the details scattered around the game, we can see that the colonists on Planet have five main sources of energy.  Their most important source of energy from a military perspective is nuclear.  All the units in the game that are built come with fission reactors and there is never any shortage of radioactive material to use in the reactors.  This goes for terraformers, ships, infantry, and rovers.  They’re all nuclear-powered in the SMAC future.  Also, the fact that one of the prominent geographical features that provides extra energy is called the Uranium Flats is another big clue that radioactives are a big part of the energy economy on Planet.

Second in importance is solar energy.  Solar collectors and giant echelon mirror networks work together to serve as the main way terraformers can improve tiles to increase energy yields.  The game even goes so far as to model the fact that the collectors are more efficient if they are placed on tiles with a high elevation.

Third is geothermal energy.  When the boreholes get going (either after building the Weather Paradigm or researching Ecological Engineering), they generate a massive amount of energy from the difference in temperature from the top and bottom of the hole in addition to the large amount of minerals that are excavated from the operation.

The next big source of energy is hydropower.  From the very beginning of the game, tiles adjacent to a river yield bonus energy due to the presence of the river.  And after Doctrine: Flexibility unlocks the foil chassis, terraformers on the sea can produce tidal harnesses, which make water tiles excellent energy producers.

The last primary source of energy is biomass.  Working forests of Earth trees yields energy from the wood in addition to building materials.  And as technology improves, the colonists learn how to yield large amounts of energy from the strange alien fungus.

So CEO Morgan clearly doesn’t want to synthesize fossil fuels for the reason why we want them on Earth today.  He does not intend to use them as a new energy input into the system.  Instead, as he says, he is interested in recreating a fossil fuel industry because of the potential for cheap and effective energy storage.  This is fascinating because, as we’ve seen, he’s already got nuclear-powered everything.  And nuclear power is even more energy-dense than hydrocarbons.

So it is particularly interesting that the first big application for these synthetic fossil fuels is large-scale missile launchers.  It’s obvious that the datalinks from Earth must have contained working rocket designs that any of the factions could have immediately put to use.  The reason why they haven’t up until now has been that they don’t have any rocket fuel.  Up until now, the abundant nuclear power is portable and effective enough to power high-energy laser weapons, but it appears to be impractical to power a barrage of rockets with uranium.


3 thoughts on “Technology: Synthetic Fossil Fuels

  1. gav

    First I want to thank you for this awesome blog. SMAC is 17 years after release still a highly interesting topic.

    There is one thing, that doesn’t let me sleep… Why, in a logical sense, forests and fungus brings minerals (and energy)??? Opposite should be the case! Or are the people of Chiron using something like charcoal to run their futuristic factories?! Are their secret projects build of wood?! Or is the whole forest-minerals-thing only for gameplay-purposes?

    (sorry for my horrible English) and kind regards from Switzerland


    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to write your comment!

      In response to your question, I always figured that, in the early years, factions that were working forests were building structures inside their domes out of wood and using firewood/charcoal for extra low-intensity energy. It makes sense at the beginning, since it would save the expensive metals and such for critical applications (like vehicles and such).

      As the game progresses, nanotechnology makes it possible to make good use out of any mass. It’s plausible that forests are just a convenient way to serve this purpose.

      Fungus is a special case. It starts out useless and becomes valuable only in the mid-game after psychic technologies are researched. I suspect that means that working a fungus tile means that psychics are working with Planet out in the fungus to find and direct the exploitation of Planet-friendly sources of minerals/energy.


  2. Workable Goblin

    There’s actually some helpful information on why synthetic fossil fuels are needed in the manual. This states that “the symbiotic network [of the fungus] essentially embraces every native species. This network works together with extreme efficiency…Therefore…fossil fuels and the like are unknown on Planet.” (Appendix 5, “Native Life” section) There’s a very considerable amount of worldbuilding material like this in the manual and similar non-game sources, in addition to the in-game quotes and information.

    As for why they are useful, although nuclear fuels have a higher per-unit energy density, for many applications–most particularly and importantly given the effects of this technology, propulsion and space launch–they are actually less efficient than chemical fuels because of the large minimum size of a useful nuclear power system (granted, RTGs can be very compact, but they’re far less energy-dense than chemical fuels). It’s very difficult to build a supersonic nuclear jet, for example, or use nuclear rockets in space launch. It’s not just about radiation hazards, either; nuclear rockets tend to have much lower thrust-to-weight ratios than chemical rockets, which makes it hard to use them to get off the ground. Hydrogen is an obvious alternative, but it’s difficult to store and handle, and anyway the very low density of hydrogen creates a lot of problems for its practical use.

    Thus, synthetic fossil fuels would be quite useful for rocketry and aircraft flight. Which of course are two things that are directly linked to the technology in game.

    The interesting thing is that we actually have a fairly good idea of how to synthetically produce methane and other hydrocarbons given as simple an input as carbon dioxide and water, and have for quite a long while. The process is rather energy-intensive, though, so it makes some sense that it wouldn’t be until the early mid-game that enough energy could be spared from immediate needs to building up these energy transport packages.



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