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  1. pbear

    pbear New Member

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    Ammonia Based Life Forms

    Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by pbear, Feb 19, 2020.

    Has anybody written about or read any stories with ammonia based life forms? I like the idea of organisms using ammonia under low temperatures and high pressure as a solvent instead of water (think the volus from ME but much more alien and unfathomable). I am writing a story which includes such creatures but am curious how other authors may have portrayed such beings. Does anyone with deeper knowledge in this topic have any input?
     
  2. Orang-U-Can

    Orang-U-Can Banned

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    No, because it is impossible. Ammonia cannot generate sufficiently long enough molecule chains to sustain life.
    There are the atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus that comprise all life and there is death.
     
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  3. NigeTheHat

    NigeTheHat Contributor Contributor

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    It may be impossible, but I wouldn't let that stand in the way of a good story.

    I've not read any books that use ammonia-based life, but there's a thread here which seems to have done a chunk of thinking on this scenario:

    https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/3090/what-would-an-ammonia-based-world-look-like

    There's a reference to a book at the bottom - Flight of the Dragonfly, by Robert L Forward - which did involve a world with ammonia oceans, so that might be worth a look.
     
  4. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    FTL travel isn't possible either, neither is time travel... but both are extensively used in the Sci Fi genre
     
  5. Orang-U-Can

    Orang-U-Can Banned

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    Science Fiction is based on science.
    That is why I find it annoying that it is so often lumped together with Fantasy.
    The two genres's have little in common.
    Warping space is as impossible as ammonia life forms.
    If the Bear wants to write a fantasy novel, there is nothing to stop him, including both impossible things.
    Science Fiction readers would not entertain it.
    We are here to sell copy, well I am anyway.
     
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  6. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    When the reader engages the planet of Arrakis for the first time, it cannot possibly have an atmosphere that is breathable to humans. Even if there was an oxygenation event in the past (Arrakis was a green planet prior to the coming of the Fremen, the sand trout, and Shai Hulud so such an event did happen), the timeline of the DUNEiverse is such that by the time of Chapter House Dune, the events of the first book are mythological, and it is believed that well over a million years have passed since the coming of the original Kwisatz Haderach. And this is from the point we start the story. The uncounted centuries that are the backstory are also to be taken into account.

    Hundreds of thousands of years more than is needed for the oxygen in the atmosphere to bind out after the ecology collapses to the point where free oxygen is no longer being put into circulation.

    Arrakis is technically impossible as a setting.

    DUNE is the seminal work of the genre.

    Science Fiction is many, many things, but a homogeneous paradigm it most certainly is not.
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2020
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  7. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    There are very many things in SciFi which are impossible - Skip drives, faster than light travel, time travel, living on the surface of mars... and on an on... Sci fi is based on scientific concepts like space travel, it is not limited to only things that are possible.

    as to the readers won't entertain it John Scalzi has a $3.4 million, 13 book, 10 year deal... and he has skip drives, impossible alien races, lasers that can target individuals from space, Brain pals (computers built into the human brain), Conciousness transference and name it...
     
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  8. Orang-U-Can

    Orang-U-Can Banned

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    Dune is a mythological Fantasy book as you rightly point out.
    Thank you, however please remember the original question was not about genre's it was about Domestos,

    sorry Ammonia and we all know where that ends up. ;)
     
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  9. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Dune was Sci fi - not fantasy

    (and there's no ammonia in domestos btw)
     
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  10. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Senior Member

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    Even Isaac Asimov had jump drives. No one's going to tell me he was writing fantasy.
     
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  11. Orang-U-Can

    Orang-U-Can Banned

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    No.
    It is impossible.
    Ammonia cannot generate sufficiently long enough molecule chains to sustain life.
    There are the atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus that comprise all life and there is death.
    In Science Fiction you have to deal with the possible, or the possible given enough time.
    Either that or Professor Asimov the greatest Science Fiction writer of all time was not telling us like it should be.
    Ammonia can never sustain life.
    Batman could make it do so, but that is Fantasy.
    So write a fantasy novel, all right.

    [personal comments deleted by moderator]
     
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  12. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Okay - mod hat on here - you've made your point, but it is only your opinion. Please try to remember that other people can have other opinions. Please move on
     
  13. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

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    This is incorrect. You don't seem to understand what the proposal of ammonia based life means.

    First of all, your list is missing the most important and abundant element in earth life: hydrogen. More than 70% of your mass is water, which has two hydrogen atoms. That list of elements does not change when talking about ammonia based life. Ammonia is NH3.

    Nobody is suggesting that ammonia will somehow perform the job of proteins, and no one is suggesting it'll somehow link together and form chains. Carbon is still the building block, and it still has four valence electrons. All of the biochemistry and building blocks will still be hydrocarbons. All of the chemical reactions needed for life will still work at far below zero, they just happen slower. The proposal is that ammonia will act as the SOLVENT. That's all, it'd replace the water. Water itself is just the solvent that earth life uses, it does very little in terms of actual life processes so theoretically any solvent will work as long as it has particular properties. The most obviously necessary property is that the solvent has to be able to both accept and donate a hydrogen ion, it also needs to be bipolar. Water and ammonia both fit this bill.

    The problem with ammonia based life is that ammonia becomes unstable at high energies, so it'd have to be very cold. The chemistry would also happen very slowly, it might take an ammonia based lifeform weeks to do what earth life can do in a few minutes. This means extremely long lifespans, and very slow evolution.
     
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  14. Cope Acetic

    Cope Acetic Member

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    newjerseyrunner is entirely correct, though Orang-U-Can's misunderstanding is understandable. When we say life is "carbon-based", we mean that the functional, biological machinery is organic (=carbon-based), so I get why that was the first thing that came to mind. Using ammonia as a solvent is possible, but here are some interesting complications which a clever writer could exploit for world building purposes.

    First, nitrogen (the element) is extremely poisonous to life as we know it (the gas is safe to breathe, obviously, I'm talking about things like ammonia and similar compounds). This is the main reason we urinate, the main reason we have kidneys. Like many potent poisons (including arsenic and cyanide), its toxicity is a result of what's known as electron transport decoupling: it upsets a very important part of the machinery our mitochondria use to package food energy into ATP. That alone is bad enough, but our mitochondria have evolved to be highly entangled in regulatory pathways across the entire organism (including, for example, the uric acid cycle, the very cycle which helps us get rid of excess nitrogen), so messing with the most important mitochondrial process is messing with the entire body. Put simply, however this fictional life form works, it can't use the same sort of machinery life on Earth does to manage energy distribution.

    Another interesting issue is that the electron transport chain is like a battery, and the positive terminal of that battery is oxygen. Oxygen absorbs electrons ultimately sourced from food particles (or the sun, if you want to be pedantic), producing water. Without going into too much detail, there's a decent amount of potential energy stored in oxygen (which is why we use it), and there isn't quite so much in nitrogen if it's used in a similar way. This suggests some interesting possibilities, like a hybrid system which still uses oxygen or maybe something fun like fluorine as the positive terminal, with nitrogen being just as dangerous to the fictional life as to life on Earth. Imagine these organisms needing to compartmentalize all of their energy-management needs to keep the nitrogen away, maybe with specialized, solid-state organs with a lot of surface area.

    As newjerseyrunner implied, ammonia has a very low boiling point, so the environment would have to be bitterly cold, by our standards. The challenges this presents are actually overwhelming. There are many issues to consider, like the physics of ammonia crystalization, whether water is also in the atmosphere in significant amounts (it would be, it's a very common molecule) and how the formation of ice crystals (less dense than liquid water) is dealt with by these organisms. The biggest problem is that things like phospholipids need to be fluid for life on Earth to manage (this is a big reason life evolved to synthesize cholesterol), and this would be a challenge at such low temperatures.

    Ammonia has a slightly higher heat capacity than water, meaning it's a bit harder to heat up, takes more energy.

    Ammonia is less dense than water.

    Ammonia is basic.

    Ammonia has a much higher vapor pressure than water. Oversimplifying a bit, this means that it evaporates very easily.

    There are many interesting challenges a writer might choose to explore, here. It's fun to think about, though too much detail would probably test the patience of most readers...
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2020
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    And if there's one thing you can be sure of reading a book by Dr. Forward, he spent a lot of time on the science.
     
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    This article has a section on ammonia as a solvent in biological systems:

    https://www.nap.edu/read/11919/chapter/8#72
     
  17. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Didn't Heinlein write a thing where methane was the solvent? I'd imagine that CH4 shares a lot of the same issues as Ammonia
     
  18. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

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    It does, and is a major reason why exobiologists are so interested in Titan. I think it's even more stable than ammonia. While ammonia is all over the universe, we've only ever seen it in gas form. Titan has massive lakes of ethane/methane. Analysis of it's atmosphere shows that hydrogen and acetylene levels drop off very quickly near the surface, which could indicate that they are being used in some continuous chemical process there.
     

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