Thomas Thwaites’ book, “The Toaster Project” illustrates why it will be so hard, if not impossible, to bounce back from collapse in the future to anything like what we take for granted today. Thwaites set about trying to make a similar toaster from scratch.
Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again, not even a simple toaster. Which, it turns out, is actually not so “simple”. The most basic toaster Thwaites could find had 404 parts, consisting of steel, mica, plastic, copper, and nickel.
What made industrialization possible was fossil fuels, coal to begin with, and later oil and natural gas. In the future, there may well be lots of fossil fuels left, but most will be miles under the deep ocean, the Arctic, and other places hard to get at or to even now.
To find out how to make iron, Thwaites had to use one of the first metallurgy books ever written from the 16th century.
Modern books don’t tell you how to make iron at home, because you need a multimillion dollar factory. Figuring out how to use coke (coal roasted to remove impurities), instead of charcoal (since nearly all the trees were gone), to make iron is what started the Industrial Revolution.
It took a long time to figure out how to make iron and steel because there are still several kinds of impurities remaining in the coke, and each impurity requires different processes to remove them. For example, to remove the oxygen (which causes iron to rust), you need to tempt it away with carbon monoxide at 1200 degrees Celsius (2370 F) which involves a very tricky precise calibration of not too much or too little air and other calibrations. Check out the contents of Metallurgy for the Non-Metallurgist, Metal Forming: Mechanics and Metallurgy, or Physical Metallurgy Principles in “Look Inside!” Table of contents or Surprise Me! for an inkling of how complex metallurgy is.
It’s not something you can do at home, as Thwaites discovered trying to make iron with coal rather than charcoal. He resorted to using a microwave oven.
Plastics are all derived from natural gas or oil, appliances typically use polypropylene. They are much harder to make than iron.
Crude oil is composed of hundreds of different hydrocarbon molecules (carbon and hydrogen) ranging from just a few atoms to longer molecules with 30 atoms. Oil refineries split these molecules into dozens of different products, including propylene, a carbon chain so small it’s a gas, that you need to turn into a solid.
Oil refineries cost billions of dollars, and check out the flow diagram of a typical refinery. So you can’t refine raw oil at home to get the propylene out. Nor was Thwaite able to talk an oil company into doing this for him.
Even if you managed to do this, plastic is much harder than iron to make. As Adrian Higson points out to Thwaite (page 115):
Metals are refined physically through heating and cooling. “We’ve been making iron since the Iron age, but we’ve only been making plastic for about 100 years (most only for 60 years). Plastic needs physical , molecular, and chemical transformations with “strict control of temperature, pressure, mixtures of chemicals, and catalysts” which are difficult to make. Polyethylene is one of the simplest plastics to make, but requires a “minimum of 6 chemical transformations”.
Nor is it easy to melt down and reuse existing plastic, that’s why so little of it is recycled. This is what Thwaite resorts to, and the result is a sorry mess.
In the end, the project was a failure. Thwaite says “It worked for a few seconds, but then the element melted itself. It was quite scary, since there was no insulation on the wires.”
Nor did he make anything from scratch. Thwaites ended up having to use a microwave to make iron, and melted down existing plastic, after failing to make it from potatoes or raw oil. He obtained copper by melting coins, and didn’t attempt to make nickel (doesn’t exist within Great Britain, the boundaries of his project). Only his hunt for mica was successful.