If I could Live in the Pleistocene part IX–Using Applied Chemistry

For those readers who don’t regularly follow my blog but might come across this entry on a random engine search, it’s necessary to resummarize my favorite fantasy which I irregularly discuss here.  I fantasize that I live in east central Georgia 36,000 years ago before there were people in North America.  I live in an adobe brick home with a garden, pasture, and fruit orchard surrounded by a stone fence designed to keep animals from consuming my food supply.  I try to live as rustic as possible, but I did bring some modern conveniences back in time with me such as electrical generators, refrigerators, and televisions.  I’m connected to the present day through a time tunnel in case I need to see a dentist or doctor and with cables running back and forth so I can communicate through internet and satellite television with the present day.  The climate 36,000 years ago was an interstadial with pleasant conditions–much cooler than the present in summer, but only a little cooler in winter.  I have a lighthouse-like tower connected to my home so I can view the surrounding countryside, and I make forays outside my protected area for scientific research, hunting, fishing, and nature photography.  The land behind my homestead is a mesophytic slope forest consisting of beech, hickory, Critchfield’s spruce, and many other species.  The land in front of my home is a dry upland savannah with oak, pine, and grass.  Canebrakes grow along the streams, chestnuts forests grow on the high dry ridges, and there are many other interesting environments including virgin white pine forests, and an extensive burned over area where berry bushes and other second growth are resprouting.  The whole vicinity is rich in pre-historic wildlife.

Because I don’t want to return to the present, unless there is an extreme emergency, I try to be completely self-sufficient.  This requires knowledge of applied chemistry.  I need to make ethanol, lye, ammonia, and saltpeter.  Woodstoves would greatly reduce my need for electical energy, yet I would need to generate some electricity for refrigeration and entertainment.  Therefore, ethanol would be my most critical need.

These woodstoves are at least 100 years old.  They put out an amazing amount of heat.  A person could lay in this pavilion in the middle of a windy winter’s night and still stay warm, thanks to just 1 of these stoves. There is a thermometer attached to the front, but I think I’d also have an electric stove for convenience and more accurate cooking.

Wood stoves put out an incredible amount of heat.  I would have several of these in my adobe house, and in my backyard under a pavilion in case the electrical power wasn’t working, and I needed to cook during the summer when it would be too hot to burn wood inside.  Wood stoves strategically placed in the kitchen, living room, hallway adjacent to the bedrooms, and near the bathtub and toilet would preclude the need for central heating, and thus save a lot of power.  However, in my kitchen I’d also have an electric stove for convenience and precision.

I’d also have parabolic solar trough collectors to generate electricity, but solar heating doesn’t work at night nor during cloudy days, necessitating an electrical generator that uses fuel.  In previous incarnations of this fantasy I’ve suggested that I would manufacture wood alcohol (methanol) from the abundant available wood.  However, I actually studied the manufacture of wood alcohol and learned that it produces poisonous waste products and requires difficult to manufacture acids.  The thought of manufacturing wood alcohol began to aggravate and eventually ruin my fantasy.  Instead, I’ve switched to ethanol or grain alcohol (ethanol).  I learned that Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, yield the most ethanol of any cultivated plant–more than sugar cane, sorghum, or corn.  This wonder vegetable can produce up to 1200 gallons of ethanol per acre which is probably far more than I’d need.  Sunchokes grow like a weed and need little to no cultivation.  They grow in my real life yard, and I did nothing to propagate them after originally planting about a half dozen tubers 10 years ago.  They’re in the sunflower family but produce no edible seeds.  Instead, little tubers that taste like water chestnuts (but much superior in taste to the canned ones) grow at the ends of the roots.  Some little tubers always remain in the ground after harvesting, so there is never a need to replant because they regrow thickly no matter how thoroughly they’re dug.  In fact, I’ve accidentally spread them to other parts of my garden from sunchoke peels I put in my compost.

Still and boiler diagram

Diagram of a still to make ethanol.  Much safer, cleaner, and easier to make than wood alcohol (methanol), the substance I originally fantasized about making to run my Pleistocene electrical generators.  Jerusalem artichokes produce the best ethanol yield of any plant–1200 gallons per acre.  Jerusalem artichokes grow like a weed and need little to no cultivation.

Converting sunchokes to ethyl alcohol is a simple process.  Add yeast and a little sugar to crushed sunchokes to instigate fermentation.  Then boil the “sunchoke wine” and condense the steam in a still to distill the alcohol (C2H6O) into a more pure form.  Incidentally, if I was desperate for alcohol to get drunk, both the wine and the liquor would be drinkable, unlike wood alcohol which is a deadly poison.  This alcohol is good to use for my generator and vehicles.

Making my own soap requires the manufacture of lye (NaOH).  Again, this is simple applied chemistry.  To make lye, add rain water to wood ashes collected in a barrel.   Ground water has too many dissolved minerals that might interfere with the chemical reaction.  Let the ashes dissolve in the rain water.  Then to make soap mix grease (animal fat, peanut oil, or etc.) to rain water.  Boil with a mixture of ammonia, borax, salt, and sugar.  When cool add the lye diluted with rain water.  (If lye is added when the mixture is hot, it will explode.)  Shape into bars.  If a perfumed soap is desired, pine needles or flowers can be used to infuse the soap early in the process.

This is about all the equipment necessary to manufacture ammonia.

Ammonia (NH3) may be the simplest chemical compound to make.  Urinate in a bucket and add water.  Cover the bucket with a top that has air holes.  Evaporation converts the urine to ammonia, a strong base that can be used as a cleaning agent and an ingredient in soap.

Colonial manufacture of saltpeter, an ingredient in gunpowder.

I suppose I could easily bring back in time a lifetime supply of saltpeter, but let’s imagine I forgot it and want to avoid a return trip through the time tunnel.  Used in small quantities, saltpeter helps preserve meats such as bacon, smoked sausage, corned beef, and ham.  It’s the ingredient that makes those meats turn an appetizing red from what otherwise would be a dull gray.  It can also be used as an ingredient in gunpowder which I wouldn’t need because I’d use bows and arrows.  To make saltpeter (KNO3), it’s necessary to collect the nightsoil underneath the chicken and goose houses and milk cow barn.    Put the nightsoil on top of a layer of sand in a vat with an outlet hole.  Add water and collect the effluvium that exits the outlet hole in a copper pot.  Boil this liquid and saltpeter is the precipitate.  It can be scraped off copper sticks and the bottom of the pot.

I wouldn’t need gunpowder, but for the record it’s made from saltpeter, charcoal, and sulphur.  To make charcoal (which I would make once a year for grilling) all that is needed is a type of smokestack known as a retort.  Stack pieces of wood in the bottom half of the smokestack and let burn slowly. Vents need to be on the bottom half of the smokestack, so enough oxygen can enter and keep the slow burning fire going.  Sulphur is supposedly abundant, but I’d need to locate a sulphur spring and evaporate the water to concentrate the element.  The only sulpur springs in Georgia I’m aware of is clear on the other side of the state.  But I doubt I’ll have any use for gunpowder in my fantasy Pleistocene world.

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4 Responses to “If I could Live in the Pleistocene part IX–Using Applied Chemistry”

  1. Mark L. Says:

    Gunpowder (and a fire source) makes a great non-lethal deterrent for large animals. I’m with you on the switch to ethanol also…many more uses and not as lethal as accidents will always happen.

  2. James Robert Smith Says:

    The artesian springs so common in southern Georgia must be sulphurous. The spoiled-egg stench that accompanies the outflow has to be sulphur, I would think.

    I watched the soap-making process once at a National Park site in Missouri.

    I know far too little of chemistry and native sources to be able to produce any of the things mentioned in your essay.

  3. markgelbart Says:

    I have noticed a sulphurous taste to the tapwater near the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

  4. James Robert Smith Says:

    Oh. And there’s also a sulphur spring at Blackrock Mountain State Park in north Georgia. The rotten-egg stench of the spring is outrageous.

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