Importance of Natural Resources

Alien Atmospheres: How To Make Plastic Trees


As a case study in the construction of alien atmospheres, let’s look at two planets: Niflheim and Clorox. Both worlds feature halogen atmospheres, (atmospheres based on these elements) but where Niflheim reimagines, Clorox tweaks. Two very different build methods. Niflheim orbits a blue-white B8 star at a distance of 4.97 AU. It’s gravity and atmospheric pressure are the same as Earth’s, but it’s average temperature is about -60 degrees Celsius. So already Niflheim is looking like a very alien world. Its atmosphere is comprised of various fluorides of nonmetals. A fluoride is a compound involving fluorine, and a nonmetal is any of these fellas. Small amounts of various inert gases, a touch of free oxygen, and about four to five percent fluorine. When it’s really cold, it rains phosphorus pentafluoride. But, under normal conditions, rain on Niflheim is hydrogen fluoride. And the atmosphere has a slight yellowish tinge to it because of all the fluorine. So the basic idea here is that oxygen and water have been replaced by fluorine and hydrogen fluoride. Which, chemically speaking, works just fine as long as the planet is very cool, (Check!) as the liquid range of hydrogen fluoride is -83 degrees Celsius to 19 degrees Celsius. Niflheim’s crust is composed of various fluorides of metals, (these guys). Its terrain is very flat, as a lot of the surface rocks, calcium difluoride, titanium tetrafluoride, and zirconium tetrafluoride are mechanically very weak. No silicates about to help build giant mountains. Rocks tend to be either gray or black as a lot of fluoride metal compounds are colorless. Colored rocks do exist, but they’re rare. Interestingly, uranium occurs naturally as uranium hexafluoride, which is super useful in terms of nuclear energy. Rivers, lakes and oceans are made of the aforementioned hydrogen fluoride. Unlike water, hydrogen fluoride ice does not float, so rivers and lakes freeze from the bottom up. Niflheim plant life uses photosynthesis just like terrestrial plants, but the reaction is slightly different. Starlight is used to power a reaction between carbon tetrafluoride and hydrogen fluoride that produces free fluorine. This sort of reaction can only take place on a world that receives a lot of UV, (Check!) as breaking up hydrogen fluoride and carbon tetrafluoride requires a lot of energy. The role magnesium plays in terrestrial plant chlorophyll is played by nickel on Niflheim, and plants are a variety of colors not just homogeneous green. As for animals, their hard tissues (bones, teeth, shells, etc.) are made of Teflon. Titanium is a key component their blood which results in colourless arterial blood and violet veins. Interestingly, the sea floors on Niflheim are covered in a layer of powdered Teflon, left behind after the death of various hard-shelled marine creatures. In short, Niflheim is a radically different planet to Earth. A heavily fluorinated, massively corrosive, bitterly cold hell-world would be a compliment. But it does work. Sorta. See, fluorine is a very rare element. There’s something like one fluorine atom for every 15,000 oxygen atoms in the universe. But even if there was somehow enough fluorine knocking about to stock up the atmosphere, it’s super, super chemically active, so it probably wouldn’t hang around very long. So there’s a little bit of hand-waving involved. With Clorox, Stephen L. Gillette gets around these issues and at the same time maintains a halogen atmosphere. Clorox features a standard terrestrial nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, but there’s about one percent chlorine present, and trace amounts of other chlorinated organic compounds. The justification for the presence of this rogue halogen is essentially biological warfare. Primitive creatures on Clorox learn to use the chloride present in Clorox’s oceans to produce chlorine gas as a defense mechanism. Their predators adapted, an arms race ensued, and eventually the entire food chain packs some sort of chlorine based weaponry, culminating in the release of free chlorine into the atmosphere by plants via their natural gas defense mechanism. Essentially, Clorox’s entire ecosystem is comprised of carbon-based oxygen breeders that possess a high tolerance for chlorine. This tolerance comes in the form of tougher cell walls and membranes, specifically designed to keep out the toxic chlorine. That said, organic molecules on Clorox are heavily chlorinated. Shells, teeth, and bones are made of plastics. Trees are made of the likes of PVC instead of cellulose, and plant leaves look like black refuse bags. See, chlorine absorbs short-wavelength blue light, so by being black, plants absorb as much of the remaining spectrum as possible. Oh, and things like flower perfumes and decay orders are made of compounds like PCB, chlordane, and DDT. The sky on Clorox has a greenish yellowish cast, (remember, chlorine absorbs shorter wavelengths of light) and is very smoggy. There’s no ozone layer, as chlorine is great at breaking ozone back into ordinary oxygen, but luckily, the chlorine itself is a good enough absorber of UV light. Chlorine is also heavier than nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, and as such it sinks, and accumulates in the low-lying regions. The concentration in these areas can be so potent that even the chlorine-tolerant locals run the risk of asphyxiation in these regions. Chlorine reacts with water to produce hydrochloric acid, so freshwater rivers and lakes are made of dilute acids. Think swimming in a river of mild vinegar. And, because of their salt content, oceans are a mild bleach. Chemical weathering on Clorox is severe. Only clays and quartz are present. No limestone. It would simply fizz away. Metallurgy is non-existent because chlorine inhibits flames, so fires only smolder, and even if metals could be worked, they wouldn’t last very long given the corrosiveness of the environment. This all means that the locals on Clorox are trapped in the wood-stone part of the tech tree, Despite their wood being a high-grade plastic. So there you go! Two very alien worlds, two very different design philosophies. The re-imagination method, and the tweaking method. In my opinion though, the tweaking method is by far and away the best option to take, should you want to construct your own alien atmospheres. Sure, Niflheim is a super-cool exotic alien world, but in changing literally everything about the world, the setting, in effect, becomes meaningless. It’s too alien, too unfamiliar and the technical knowledge required to construct an utterly alien world is beyond most. Sure, if you’ve got a PhD, more power to you, but for the rest of us plebs, the tweaking method is best. It takes a system we all know and understand and mods it. Modding requires less technical knowledge, takes less time and effort, and creates an equally exotic yet still familiar setting. But the killer feature here is the ability to be able to say that your world could have become reality. Earth could have been Clorox had early bacteria learned to harness and weaponize the chloride present in Earth’s oceans. Our skies could have been greenish-yellow, and our trees, plastic. That thought alone is more mind-blowing than any utterly alien world ever could be. Good morning, interweb! In case you missed it at the start, Niflheim and Clorox are two fictional planets by H. Beam Piper And Stephen L. Gillette respectively, links to the sources in the doobly-doo if you want some further reading. Thank you all so much for watching, and a special thanks goes out to the patrons Isaac Silbert, Andrew Chehayl, Robin Hilton, World Anvil, Ripta Pasay, and new patron John Hooyer! Thank you all for making Artifexian continue to be a thing. It means the world, you’re awesome! And until next time, Edgar out!


Reader Comments

  1. I have a world named Formida. I want to create aliens for it, here it is:

    RETSRA/FORMIDA
    Atmosphere point: 5 (thicker than Mars)
    44% Nitrogen
    18% Oxygen
    36% Carbondioxide
    2% other gases
    Moons:
    Lasub (750 km radius, 265000 km radius)
    Eitchom (100 km radius, 50000 km radius)
    Radius: 4880 km
    Mass: 0.5535 Earth
    Temperature: 269 K (-4 C°)
    Semi-major axis: 187500000 km (1.25 AU)

  2. I want to remind everyone that it's well worth it to support Artifexian on Patreon. For $7 per video, you can have early access to the scripts and have the opportunity to provide your own scientific input and help make these lessons as enlightening as possible.

  3. To add to the conversation, I would like to remind hard sci-fi worldbuilders: you don't have to go through the trouble of creating an unusual atmosphere for your world in order to make it exotic. At the very most, all you have to do is acknowledge that the majority of the time the species of one planet won't be able to breath on another planet, so for realism's sake you would want to regularly work this in to your setting. Treat it as a default that most characters in an interplanetary setting will wear breathing apparatuses.

  4. Here's an interesting concept… so many space settings have these low-tech, tribal or occasionally feudal civilizations, yeah?
    Rather than just 'oh, they just haven't invented the tech yet'… how would you go about designing a planet that naturally inhibits technology while still being livable? What workaround tech could eventually occur, in worlds like Clorox where metal is impractical?

  5. I've noticed earth has a lot more argon than most other noble gasses. But, Neon is a far more common noble gas. So what if I took earth and swapped its argon and neon? Would there be any difference or would it be pretty much the same? Thx for reading 😀

  6. Life couldn’t develop around a blue star, at least not complex life. Life was single cell on earth for billions of years, far longer than any blue star’s lifespan. Any exotic life forms would get supernovad before they could do anything interesting.

  7. Jesus was this a good video. Both planets were super thorough and unique, this is macro worldbuilding at its finest.

  8. Could make a video detailing what different gases would do if we added it to an Earth-like via the tweaking-method? Im tryna build a planet that would have an atmosphere that blocks out a lot of the sunlight that in turn makes the locals on the planet evolve a slower heartbeat, colder body temperature, and monochromatic infrared vision to help search out prey. I cant find a gas that would hang around the planet long enough for the locals to evolve and also block out much of the sunlight

  9. I'm new here. What a imaginative channel! As a avid science reader and a early time scientist, this is a good source of science inspiration. Keep it up, and hope the rest is binge worthy.

  10. You talked about blood colours and I wondered how could I make an atmosphere that supports creatures with purple blood?

  11. Two pros and cons to the imaginative and tweaking methods that you didn't quite mention. With the imaginative method, if written well can be a good way to explain alternative biologies and teach some chemistry, much as you did in this video. The con being that in trying to explain this you're more likely to end up with readers which dump all the info you throw at them under real-life phlebotinum and never explore further, thinking it's beyond them and actually killing the curiosity (especially as most of the people who would know enough to create an alternative atmosphere like that would not know how to explain it to people who don't have the PhD required to create it).

    As for the tweaking method especially when it comes to worlds which are similar enough it's plausible that Earth could've become just like it, it can inspire people to ask the obvious question, "Why didn't Earth become a chlorine planet?" That's a much simpler question that more people might be tempted to take up the search and thus teach themselves a bit of the relevant biochemistry. The flip side being that if the author creates something that seems plausible but is blatantly wrong, especially if they don't realize it themselves, the reader is much more likely to take that pseudo-science as actual science.

    Of course these only apply if you want your readers to come out better educated and knowledgeable than when they picked up your book, which is not every writer's first goal in writing, and nor should it always be their first goal.

  12. I wanted to make an alien world with a fair amount of sulfur hexafluoride in the atmosphere, so as to make airships far more bouyant. I need some tips about chemistry to make life possible in a higher flourine content world with earth like pressure and temp.

  13. It's great to see you uploading some videos with a bit of biology in 'em. Will you be doing any more videos about biology, or at least partially about biology like this one?

  14. How would the Clorox organisms eat and transform polymers from trees? Any knows biological processes that exist on Earth? Applied to degrade plastics?

  15. I love your Videos! I'm from Germany and there is no one who make Videos like you do. They are all doing trash Videos and Comedy. Make your thing, it's very intereseting what you do!!!!👍

  16. Is there anyway I can have to make a green (maybe aqua or "grue") atmosphere that don't dissoves everything and still breathable to humans?

  17. Can we please get a much more detailed exploration of the Chemistry required to do this?
    I know it's way outside of your normal fields, but some of your videos on more complex topics describe without explaining the how or why of it. Even with my education in chemistry I wouldn't have a clue where to start with something like this.

  18. Replace one element with another, and you have to change literally everything *o*/

    You would need 200 IQ to do that. Or at least a decent understanding of chemistry.

  19. Clorox is, if applying human treaties to it, basically an eternally war crime filled planet (I am pretty sure they banned using chlorine gas in some treaty)

  20. oh so this is why people pretend life on non-earth planets doesn't exist. It's simply too much effort to account for everything.
    I guess I should go back to assuming that none of my planets could ever exist, give up on my imagination, and go write about humans who stayed on earth and never did anything interesting. No matter how much research and accuracy you put in a science fiction it's going to be picked apart by the fans so fuck beleivability and create the world you want to see. And to the people who constantly do the picking apart, have a read about modern space travel. There is none. There is no funding toward it happening in the future. NASA has even disbanded. If you want a 100% accurate scifi write about a guy living in a boring apartment on earth who never has anything interesting happen to him at all.

  21. I was wondering if it was at all possible for there to be a binary star system that has a habitable planet that orbits both of them BUT where it orbits around a singular star then switched to the other star rather than just orbiting the barycentre.

    Imagine a planet that orbits 2 stars in a figure 8 pattern, the momentum from one orbit launching it into the other's orbit. Any ideas?

  22. Hey, since you seem to know quite a bit of this stuff, so maybe you can help a friend of mine. Her hobby is designing alien creatures, and she wants to try to expand her horizons and make some creatures that are different elementally. She also doesn't know that much about how different chemicals can be put together differently.
    So what if sodium was toxic to many of the lifeforms on a world? What then, could these creatures use, instead of salt?

    I wish there were some website that we could answer questions like this on, cause this doesn't seem like something that can be googled.

  23. I liked most of the video, but not your finishing point… I just can't agree. What is meaningful or interesting is heavily subjective my friend.
    Maybe I'm the odd one out, but the idea of a radically different alien world is utterly fascinating to me. The "this could be us" stuff fits in with all other speculative fiction. Yes, it's interesting too. But the pattern again and again of "what if earth, but minor change X" is really common. The "what does a planet look like when Life-Having, but not like earth?" hasn't been done as much, so yes I do in fact find the completely alien world in all it's need to be crafted from the ground up, to be very fascinating. Anyway, thank you for talking about worldbuilding, I love your videos. 🙂

  24. If the universe is infinite (it is), then there must logically be an exact copy of your con world within it. Damn that's amazing

  25. Would Niflheim "die" before it had the chance to evolve plants, or at least animals? Making it even more of a cool handwavy planet than an actual thing?
    I saw a graph that said stars with 2x Solar masses would have a lifespan of ~1.77 billion years, and jumped to stars with 5x solar masses having ~178 million years to live. Since it's parent star is 3.8x Solar masses, I imagine it'd be in the middle (Maybe less than a billion years).
    Going by Earth itself (~4.5 billion years), and Earth's life (~4.4-4.1 (Theoretical afaik)- 3.7 (Oldest evidence afaik)- to 3.5 (At least) billion years), that gives us a bit under 900 million years from first dust, to life (assuming life is ~3.7 billion years old). And since it took a very long time to get to get from Unicellular to Multicellular life, and a bit longer to plants and animals; it most likely wouldn't have lasted long enough to get far at all. Going extinct just as it was gearing up.

    Which is kinda depressing. To think that something as amazing as life could be unlucky enough to form somewhere that would quickly be inhospitable.

  26. I have my own atmosphere

    Planet name: nitrocliex
    Size: 1.2 earth
    Atmosphere: 50% nitrogen
    10% methane
    10% carbon
    20% oxygen
    5% argon
    2% xenon
    1% flourine
    2% boron

    Layer: 6
    Rotation: 6 hour
    Pressure: 1.1
    Planet gravity: 1.2 g
    Magnetic field: 101 gauss
    Shield: ozone
    Star mass: 1.3 sun
    Planet distance: 1.25 au
    Axial tilt: 57
    Living organism: yes
    Organism creature: pleogaluea (producing nitrogen)
    Molecule: 40% water
    20% methane
    20% oil
    10% sulfuric acid
    10% heavy water
    Core: 40% nickel
    20% cobalt
    10% iron
    10% titanium
    10% vanadium
    5% tin
    5% silver
    Crust: 20% silicate
    20% uranium
    10% quartz
    10% gold
    20% plutonium
    20% neptunium
    Moon: 2
    Hemiol:
    Atmosphere: 50% helium
    50% hydrogen
    Crust: 50% silicate
    30% uranium
    20% plutonium
    Core: 50% nickel
    50% cobalt
    Size: 2 mile
    Magnetic field: 86 gauss
    Rotation: 3 hour
    Shield: ozone
    Burso:
    Atmosphere: 60% hydrogen
    40% oxygen
    Molecule:100% water
    Crust: iceX
    Core: 60% iron
    40% nickel
    Size: 4 mile
    Rotation: tidally locked
    Shield: ozone

  27. Why even use a planet? Read Dragons Egg. Basically a neutron star named dragons egg flys above the ecliptic plane of the sol system at a couple hundred AU. In the 2050s a monopole powered spacecraft named dragon slayer goes to investigate. It turns out that there is life on the surface, consisting of creatures the mass of a human but the size and shape of a sesame seed. Due to the process behind this form of life being nuclear reactions, not chemical ones, everything happens 1 million times faster for a Cheela (the main lifeforms of dragons egg) than for a human. Because of this, when the human arrive the Cheela are in their tribal stage, and just a few weeks later they have massively surpassed human technical progress. The most amazing thing is how he was able to make such an alien race feel so familiar. It’s easily one the best books ever written, only being surpassed by its sequel, Starquake. Oh, and for the record, it is hard sci-fi . Seriously. He even wrote a paper on life on neutron stars so he could use it as an in-universe reference at the end of the second book.

  28. I doubt anyone will believe me but my friends and I are doing this SciFi spaceship crash RP, I thought of the world and atmosphere, and it came out extremely close to the tweaked method. Obviously I didn't think of it first, but I thought of it on my own. Woot

  29. Artifexian, can you make a video about building "Eccentric Earths"? Their perihelion brings them near the inner boundaries of the habitable zone, and the aphelion near the outer.

  30. Just… The Best.
    There are no words to describe the amount of joy I experence each time I rewatch this video or anyother of your video.

  31. wouldnt nilfheim's atmosphere of fluorine actively destroy every semblance of photosynthesys? I mean, fluorine and hydrofluoric acid would destroy any organic compound.

  32. If I built a world I would make the plants use retinal (I think that's the name) instead of chlorophyll for photosynthesis so the planet would be purple instead of green.

  33. So, is it possible that the ground is made up of a gelatin material? Like is there rocks that are naturally gelatin like? I wanna make a planet that got a gelatin crust. The trees and plants are made up of a stronger gelatin, like a hard plastic, but it still acts like tree bark. The animals just combined with the humanoids and there are only 4 types of animals left that are pure. And they’re used for food. So, the “fish” are actually humanoid waterbenders and can also breathe underwater. They almost completely lost their mix and they would look more like the merman in The Shape of Water.

    All that aside, I would wanna make sure all this is possible to some extent.

  34. When it comes to plant colours, a lot of it is to do with light.

    But Earth has an odd history.
    The earliest 'plant' life, (algae) evolved to make use of the peak wavelengths the sun puts out.
    that is, it absorbs green light.
    The end result is plants that are 'purple', since they reflect red and blue light.
    However, some time after, mutated plants which absorbed Red + Blue developed, and because this was a complimentary niche (the purple plants did not absorb this light), they survived and thrived.
    They did so well in fact that they completely out-competed the purple plants, and the suitable chlorophyll for absorbing green wavelengths was more or less lost. (I'm not sure it's 100% gone, but it's quite rare regardless.)

    Technically this means on Earth the 'green light absorbing' purple plant niche is now available almost everywhere, but it would seem even though it's the brightest part of the spectrum it's not enough to outcompete the 'red + blue absorbing' plants.

    It does however suggest, but for a quirk of fate, we would've had a purple planet, not a green one.
    And but for a slightly different quirk of fate, we could (and may yet) end up with black plants. (since adding the green absorbing cholophyll to the red and blue ones would result in a black plant.)

    Weird to think about huh.
    But it shows that this is theoretically viable for alien worlds even sticking entirely to biology that has existed on Earth.
    Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Cyan, Purple and black photosynthetic plants are ALL possible entirely using known Earth biology.
    (I suppose you could also get variations depending on the proportions and concentrations of the different chlorophyll types)
    However, the black and monochromatic plants (Red, Green, or Blue) are the most likely overall, given competition between different plant types…

  35. Thanks for including Tennessine in your periodic table. It's named after Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee.

    Interesting video overall. The fluorine world in implausible for exactly the reason you stated, not enough fluorine in the universe. Clorox seems more likely. Earth has enough chlorine to be Clorox if that's how things went.

  36. How do you figure out all the chemistry stuff without getting a PhD? For example, how do you know what the bones are made out of, or that the trees are made of plastic?

  37. What if there was no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and plants used a different chemical to complete photosynthesis and because of the lack of carbon dioxide carbonic acid isn't formed meaning that runoff from the land doesn't break down rocks as much leading to the oceans being comprised of freshwater and not saltwater.

  38. For the Spectral Type of the Star, I was wondering how you got the 8 for B8. Could you do a video for the numerical sub divisions for spectral types? I know the sun is a G2V but it would really help me out for building a Star with an accurate spectral type

  39. How would a planet function (using the tweaking method) if it's atmosphere contained high amounts of noble gasses instead of halogens? I know the Earth has about 1% argon in its atmosphere, but if we increased that to a much higher level, what effects would it have on the planet? Noble gasses are really stable, so the atmosphere should stay around for long, but I'm not sure about the rarity of them.

  40. How do you know what kind of affect certain chemicals would have on the wildlife and planet overall. How do you research all of this, without getting several degrees?

  41. There's also a band called Plastic Tree. This doesn't have much to do with anything — I just thought it was kinda funny.

  42. Animals made of Titanium blood would live on NIflheim, eh? My immediate reaction is that Niflheim's version of Bob Ross is a literal Great White Hunter whose paintings are also trophies of the creatures he hunts, their blood ironically shaped into Happy Little Whatevers, which is a mental image I find both unbelievably metal and also slightly terrifying.

  43. Alien: come from Nifelheim during Earth's winter
    Tour guide: "… and so that's a basic tour of the town. Now if you look to your right you’ll see the amazing ice pans that appear this time of year."
    Alien: has a panic attack
    Tour guide: "What's wrong?"
    Alien: grabs tour guide by the collar of their shirt "Your ENTIRE ocean is freezing solid and you’re cAlM aBoUt ThAt!?"

  44. Wouldn't certain metals like Gold still be available without fire and with a slightly corrosive environment? Obviously this would make metal horrendously expensive but Gold is still probably easier to get than Meteorite Iron or Iron from derelicts, both of which were used as sources of Iron by non-smelting peoples of the old and new world continents, respectively.

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