"On Earth, petroleum once turned petty thugs into world leaders. Warp drive once transformed a bunch of Romulan thugs into an empire."
Unobtainium is the exotic metal
or other material that is needed to make the Applied Phlebotinum
of a story work. Without it, all your nifty machines and plot enabling gadgets
Some forms of unobtainium are based on real physics, but beyond the current scope of human engineering, such as Room temperature superconductors
; they would revolutionize just about every form of technology, but they are not in and of themselves dangerous or based on some exotic physics-bending principle.
Others are more fantastic "high-grade" unobtainium, such as Antimatter
, which would be a revolutionary way of storing huge amounts of energy, if it didn't violentlynote
undergo mutual annihilation with any
conventional matter it comes into contact with, including air molecules and the walls of whatever you're trying to store the damn stuff in
. And if it could be made to exist for more than a few minutes.
The most common varieties of unobtainium in fiction sit somewhere in the middle, like materials so resistant to heat and/or damage as to be Nigh Invulnerable
compared to other, similar substances. Materials such as mithril
, adamantium and orichalcum
(and all variant spellings thereof) are the fantasy version. Thunderbolt Iron
is especially popular in fiction (and has some basis in reality
— until furnaces were invented it was the best source of refined iron).
Much mad science
uses unobtanium, such as chemicals with impossible properties
, universal solvents
that can dissolve anything in the blink of an eye, super-explosives that make nitroglycerin look like a weak cough and plenty of other funny-colored solutions
. Following this would be medical and/or chemical wish-fulfillers; Classical real-world alchemy casually referred to carmot, the base substance of the Philosopher's Stone, and Azoth, either the "universal medicine" or "universal solvent". The ancient Greek
referred to "orichalcum" (Greek for "mountain bronze") in his description of Atlantis
In Science Fiction
it will usually take one of three flavors: whatever stuff makes Faster-Than-Light Travel
possible, closely followed by the stuff that can mess with gravity
(if they're not one
and the same
), and finally the stuff they make Humongous Mecha
spacecraft out of, which is why they tend to be effectively immune from earthly weapons
or environmental damage.
For Willing Suspension of Disbelief
, authors may pick out something actively being researched within the scientific community at the time of writing
and run with it
. Naturally, this risks dating the work when Science Marches On
and today's "super technology" buzzword becomes the next generation's comic-book junk science
. The current favorite in hard sci-fi
— believed by many to be the
fuel of choice for those nifty fusion reactors that should be perfected any time now
. Theoretically, it's a safe large-scale energy source with few environmental side effects
. But more importantly, though there's extremely little of it on Earth, there's plenty of it on the Moon - which would provide a good reason to go there
See Also: Minovsky Physics
when the Unobtainium
has well-thought-out properties that are strictly adhered to, and it's opposite, Green Rocks
when it can do anything and everything the plot demands.
Compare Mineral MacGuffin
and Spice of Life
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Anime & Manga
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion they have a special liquid called LCL which has several useful properties. One is its ability to conduct electrical signals, useful for electrically conducting nerve impulses between an Evangelion pilot and his/her Evangelion. But more amazing is its property that it can hold vast amounts of dissolved oxygen at concentrations high enough that once it has filled the lungs, a human can directly breath the oxygen present in it (handy thing when you have to fill a bio-mecha cockpit with this stuff and have the pilot be completely submerged in it). It's actually the blood of the Angel Lilith, which adds all sorts of retroactive squick when you realize they've been "breathing" it the whole time.
- Orichalcum (or a variant spelling) is a metal with magical properties that makes appearances in several anime, including Slayers.
- Digimon as a whole has the Chrome Digizoid metal (also spelled ChronDigizoid). It's characterized as a highly sought after super-metal (with a silly name) of any colour which is very strong and cannot be damaged, except by other samples of it; in addition to being mined in some Digimon canons, a small number of Digimon species are either made of/plated in it (e.g. MetalEtemon) or wield weapons made of it (e.g. Zudomon, who killed the aforementioned MetalEtemon in Digimon Adventure). The only time it's been referenced in the anime itself was briefly in the aforementioned Digimon Adventure incident between Zudomon and MetalEtemon, and then only mentioned offhand to give Zudomon, a lower-level Digimon, a way to revenge-kill MetalEtemon; as such, most mentions of the substance occur in the broader source material. According to said source material, there exist several varieties with different properties denoted by specific colours: Blue, which provides high speed (as seen on UlforceV-dramon); Red, which provides even higher defence (e.g. Sleipmon); Gold, which increases a Digimon's offensive power (e.g. Shoutmon DX); and the vaguely described Black (e.g. Craniummon) and Obsidian (e.g. KaiserLeomon).
- The entire Gundam franchise uses unobtanium to various degrees, but it is played straight and subverted in the very first series of all, Mobile Suit Gundam. Early on the Lunar Titanium Alloy used by the RX-78 Gundam is effectively indestructible to conventional fire, the oversized machineguns and bazookas used by mobile suits shaking it, but otherwise causing very little damage. This changed near the end of the series, when Zeon mobile suits gain beam weaponry technology, and we discover that beam weaponry trumps EVERYTHING in terms of armor. For the entire Universal Century timeline afterwords, combat becomes based around avoiding getting hit, since any significant hit at all is instantly fatal, regardless of armor. Even the large shields mobile suits carry generally only suffer one impact before getting blown away completely.
- Unless the shield in question has anti-beam coating, which itself is quite rare and still doesn't provide complete protection.
- Mobile Suit Gundam Wing plays the trope straight, and has the alloy Gundanium, which is incredibly tough, nearly immutable, heat-resistant, electrically neutral, and a natural radar damper. The "rare, hard-to-find" part comes from the fact that it can only be manufactured in space and the fact that at the start of the show, only six people in the world know how to make it. You might be surprised to learn that this has some basis in real-world science, as the crystalline structures that form as liquid metal solidifies can be very different in microgravity. The odds of creating an alloy with all the aforementioned properties remain fairly small, however.
- The Cosmic Era Expanded Universe has its own unobtainium in the form of the beam-resistant alloy the Gerbera Straight was forged out of. Only one person in the entire Earth Sphere knows its composition and how to forge it.
- In Mazinger Z:
- The show took the "ridiculously high strength/density ratio" thing to a whole new level when Japanium is alloyed into Super Alloy Z. The titular robot, built from the stuff, stands 18 meters tall, yet weighs a meager 20 tons.
- In one episode, Dr. Hell managed to steal a supply of the stuff and build his own robot with Super Alloy Z armor, but he wasn't able to completely cover it with the stuff. Eventually, the heroes found out which part of it wasn't made of it, and was able to Attack Its Weak Point to destroy it.
- Great Mazinger and Venus A are built from the same stuff.
- And Mazinkaiser.
- UFO Robo Grendizer gives two examples: Gren, an alien metal Grendizer itself is built with. Since it can not be found on Earth, when Grendizer gets damaged, Alloy Z is used to repair it; and Vegatron, a highly radioactive material only can be mined from planet Vega. The Vegans used it to create powerful weapons, but its overexploitation led to the planet becoming highly unstable.
- Super Alloy Z Alpha From the Mazinkaizer OVA's es several orders of magnitud more strong, it take whitout a scratch the impact of two weapons of the original Mazinger. and even is able to withstand swimming in hot lava.
- Levistone from Kyouran Kazoku Nikki, a material which makes things hover when electricity runs through it.
- Code Geass has Sakuradite, previously found and said to be the "Philosopher's Stone" in medieval times, and found in large amounts in Japan. It's now valued as a superconductor, being liquid in room temperature. It also explodes rather easily...
- Various evolution-inducing stones aside, in one episode of Pokémon Team Rocket had a mecha composed of "polished unobtainium", which made it immune to Psychic attacks.
- Done with a twist in Castle in the Sky where the Levistone (a Grade A Unobtainium) is a well-known mineral (and the name of the material is Etherium instead of Levistone), commonly found in rocks - however, it rapidly decays when exposed to air and thus serves no practical purpose. The movie's Precursors knew how to refine it and fashion it into durable crystals, with many amazing properties. This technology has been lost and the world's nations will now stop at nothing to lay their hands on the few remaining samples.
- The Vision of Escaflowne has 2 of these.
- One of them is actually called Levistone here. It is heated to decrease its levitation (allowing one to control the height of an airship).
- The other (and more often referred to) is Drag Energist. It gives life to dragons and sits in their chest cavity where their heart would normally be. It is mined from places where there's lots of dead dragons or from a dragon that is hunted and killed. This mineral is usually pink and it directly creates electrical energy (just makes electricity out of thin air, no input required) needed to power mechs and other machinery. It also undergoes "resonance" (what seems to more accurately be nuclear fission) if too many are placed together in the same area. In one of the last episodes, an atomic bomb is built using this same principle with this material.
- One Piece
- Seastone, apparently "a solidified form of the sea". Contact with it will weaken Devil Fruit users, and drain them of their abilities. It's also apparently harder than diamond.
- Adam, a super-strong type of wood.
- Don Krieg's armour was made of Wootz steel, a real-world type of unobtanium (see below).
- Vizorium is both the Unobtainium that makes warp-drive possible, and the central plot driver of the Dirty Pair Movie Project Eden.
- GEMs in Mai-Otome give Otome their robes (and thus, most of their powers). The Coral and Pearl GEMs used by students are artificially created, but the knowledge of how to create Meister GEMs was lost, making them extremely valuable.
- Outlaw Star has dragonite, used for Faster-Than-Light Travel (and accidental Pokémon references).
- Lupin III has used several different examples of this trope.
- In Claymore swords are made from a rare ore which makes them indestructible. The near-impossibility of getting said ore and the ease at which the Claymore's organization is able to get the ore to make new swords becomes a big supporting evidence of a major plot point quite far into the story.
- In Dragon Ball Z, Supreme Kai summons a block of "Kachin", the hardest metal in the universe, to show just how awesome the Z Sword is. It consequently breaks to release Supreme Kai's predecessor from 15 generations ago and the metal is never heard of again.
- Naturally, the Marvel Universe has adamantium (in multiple flavors; see below), but it also has other "magic metals," like vibranium (of which there are two varieties, Wakandan [which absorbs kinetic energy/sound/vibrations] and Antarctic [which causes other metals near it to liquefy]), Uru (the material of Thor's hammer), promethium (a magical metal found only in Otherplace/Limbo, which can be used as an energy source, despite it being a real chemical element with real properties), and netheranium (the material of Damien Hellstrom's trident). The best example, though, would have to be the infamous "unstable molecules" used to make so many heroes' and villains' costumes. And Captain America's unobtainable unobtainium shield - completely indestructible, but also a handwavy one-off item.
- A number of stories suggest that Cap's shield is an otherwise impossible vibrainium/adamantium alloy reinforced by American righteousness (as opposed to ''self''-righteousness). Since the guy making it fell asleep during the forging process, we'll never know.
- The "vibranium/adamantium alloy" thing is due to a misprint in one of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe issues. His shield was made from a unique alloy of iron, Wakandan vibranium, and some unknown contaminant. When the metallurgist who had made it tried recreating the alloy (while Cap was frozen), the closest he could come up with is what's known as (true) adamantium, which is slightly weaker than the alloy in Cap's shield!
- Speaking of, adamantium comes in a few flavors. True Adamantium is the nearly-indestructible metal alloy that's bonded to the bones and claws of Wolverine. There's also Secondary Adamantium, which is a lot cheaper to make but is still quite strong. Carbonadium (the stuff covering Omega Red's tentacles) is what the Soviets came up with when they tried to create true adamantium; it's about as strong as secondary adamantium, but is more malleable... and radioactive. Also, in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, adamantium can block telepathy.
- The DCU has its own varieties of unobtainium:
- In the Silver Age DCU, Krypton became a gold mine of unobtainium. Any item, living or not, that originated there would become indestructible under a yellow sun. Kryptonite was also formed by the explosion of Krypton (with various varieties in the Silver and Bronze Ages).
- Promethium is the DCU's equivalent of adamantium, a super hard metal that superstrong superheroes have a tough time damaging, and Nth Metal, or "transuranic iron ore," was the key to Thanagarian technology (as seen frequently in Justice League). Irritatingly, promethium is a real metal (element 61), one with no stable isotopes and no special structural properties. DC's promethium comes in two flavors. "Raw" promethium can be used as an energy source or a mutagen. When alloyed with titanium and vanadium, it forms a near-invulnerable metal.
- In the video game Batman: Vengeance, there's a substance called "prometheum," which shares its name with DC's metal, but it's a chemical formula that's used for keeping people cryogenically preserved, but bursts into flame very easily.
- The first version of the Legion of Super-Heroes used "inertron" for this purpose, an invulnerable metal.
- The Pre Crisis DCU also featured the invulnerable metals "Supermanium" (a metal once created by Superman) and "Amazonium" (the metal Wonder Woman's bracelets were made from), both invulnerable metals akin to inertron.
- The Tintin adventure Tintin The Shooting Star revolves around a mission to retrieve a sample of unobtainium (dubbed "Phostlite") from a fallen meteorite. The only obvious property of the stuff is making mushrooms grow really fast. And other plants. And animals, like butterflies and spiders. Fortunately, germs don't seem to be included.
- In Tintin Destination Moon, Professor Calculus has invented a new substance - calculon - which can "resist even the highest temperatures", with which to make the nuclear fission motor for the rocket.
- In an early Marvel/DC crossover featuring the X-Men and the New Teen Titans, the villain Darkseid keeps both teams shackled, and states that Kitty Pryde's shackles are made of a rare metal with molecules so tightly packed, not even she can phase through them.
- A metal native to the Breakworld in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run adversely affected Kitty Pryde when she phased through it, to the point where she ended up stranded inside a ten-mile long bullet of the stuff when she phased it through the Earth, and wasn't able to control her powers after Magneto rescued her.
- Epiphyte in The Metabarons, the original source of the Castaka family wealth.
- Radion in the DCU is incredibly rare. It's also very special because it is the Kryptonite Factor of the New Gods. Even Darkseid can be truly and permanently killed by Radion poisoning and a Radion bullet — fired by Batman of all people — to the shoulder is the first part of Darkseid's Rasputinian Death in Final Crisis.
- Chaos Emeralds in Sonic the Hedgehog went from Kryptonite Is Everywhere to Unobtainium during the "Order From Chaos" storyline. Prior to the story, Mobius had hundreds of Chaos Emeralds and if the story needed one, poof, there ya go. However, when A.D.A.M. drew every Chaos Emerald in the solar system to Mobius, Turbo Tails and Super Shadow (the ones who were forced to bring them there) realize how dangerous that was and shove them all into the Zone of Silence. Feist, the being remaining there, became a god when he harnessed their power to remake the Zone and condensed all of those emeralds into only seven. Like their video game counterparts, they're used for either Super Mode activation or powering up super weapons. Like rewriting your reality.
Films — Animated
Films — Live-Action
- Central to the plot of Black Lighting (Chernaya Molniya) is a mystery space element that powers the flying car. The Corrupt Corporate Executive spends the entire movie trying to get his hands on it.
- Avatar refers to it by name. The movie features a mineral called unobtainium, although, in the film, the unobtainium functions as a Mineral MacGuffin; it's described as a room temperature superconductor that makes space travel more affordable, but never really expanded on apart from that. On the website wiki some of the other uses make it apply to this trope better. According to the guide, it's called "unobtainium" because this is a tongue-in-cheek designation for all high-temperature superconductor materials, called so by Earth scientists when they gave up on reliably synthesizing them. Cartoon Network's Mad series lampoon of Avatar lampshades and mocks the name by calling it "Stupidnameium."
- The Core lampshaded this, calling their Unobtainium Unobtainium ("Its real name is thirty-seven syllables long") which turned heat and pressure into electrical energy. Perfect for a journey through the Earth's molten core. Extremely practical, as all you had to do was to randomly cut supply wires and casually weld them to the substance in question, and you had an energy source that rivaled a nuclear reactor. There are actually Real Life substances that turn pressure into electricity, known as Piezoelectric substances, although they wouldn't work on such a large scale. One example is quartz crystals (including the one that goes "tick" in your wristwatch). Piezoelectric materials work by flexing, seeing as how the energy has to come from somewhere. This means your core-ship would generate lots of lovely electricity in the process of crumpling into a ball. If a Real Life metallurgist with a sense of humor actually managed to make something that worked as in the movie, they might be sorely tempted to call it "unobtainium" or "impossibilium" or something like that.
- Metallic tritium serves this function in Spider-Man 2. The Big Bad has to make a Deal with the Devil (requiring him to beat the protagonist) in order to get some. Strangely enough, the way the Big Bad is going to use the tritium is a scaled-down version of one way physicists are trying to develop fusion power called "inertial confinement". The idea is the same, vaporize an amount of an element with lasers in an attempt to create a miniature sun, only the scale and elements used are different. For more information, this writer's original reference is "Kaku, Michio PhD. Physics of the Impossible. Doubleday Publishing, 2008. Pages 43-45."
- Parodied in the fifties B-movie homage The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra with Atmosphereum, a super-powerful and poorly-defined element capable of operating spacecraft, resurrecting evil skeletons, and delivering actual advances in the field of science.
- Fluid Karma in Southland Tales. A compound found by drilling in the ocean that apparently can be used to generate electric power. Also, acts as a drug working somewhat like a Green Rock.
- Star Trek has red matter, which can make black holes on cue.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home also has an unobtainium in the form of Transparent Aluminum, which allows Scotty to create a giant aquarium in the shuttle to transport a breeding pair of whales back to 24th century Earth. Significantly, the material is known to Scotty, :who then helped the inventor create it in an ethically challenging time loop. It should be noted that recent advances in materials science actually have created a form of transparent steel, at least in the lab.
- Transparent aluminium oxide is a real-world material starting to see commercial use, primarily as an alternative to Gorrilla Glass called Sapphire Glass (sapphires are aluminium oxide crystals with trace amounts of, usually, iron, giving them a blue color).
- In Outlander, after establishing that Viking swords aren't strong enough to injure the Moorwen, Kainan salvages some hull metal from his crashed starship, and gives this to the local blacksmith to forge some stronger swords.
- Turbinium from the original Total Recall (1990), which is being mined on Mars against the local rebels' wishes and keeps Cohaagen's regime running, as his superiors on Earth give him carte blanche as long as their supply remains constant.
- In District 9, the unnamed nanofluid is found in prawn technology in extremely small amounts, and is apparently quite precious. It has the power to activate the aliens' ship as well as transform a human into a prawn.
- In Doctor Horrible, the good doctor powers his freeze ray with Wonderflonium, not far removed from Unobtainium as it has the power to make the impossible possible and power the freeze ray — which freezes time — for a short time, at least. Wonderflonium should also never be bounced for some reason.
- In Iron Man 2, the element which powers Stark's Arc Reactor is palladium (which is a real element, and not this trope) before he synthesizes a better substitute (which is).
- In 21 Jump Street, there is also a substance called Unobtainium, which apparently "has a nuclear reaction with the flux capacitor — carry the ’2′ — changing its atomic isotoner into a radioactive spider." Or, you know, this thing doesn't exist and the character speaking was just stoned out of his mind.
- The spaceship in Galaxy Quest runs on beryllium, a natural but rare element. When the only beryllium sphere on board breaks under stress, the crew sets out to obtain a replacement sphere from a nearby planet. They eventually succeed but the distraction caused by this side quest enables the Big Bad to seize their ship.
- Adamantium in X-Men Origins: Wolverine comes from meteors. Specifically, sacred African meteors, making it this continuity's answer to Vibranium. Thus completing the transformation begun in the Ultimate Avengers films.
- Cavorite from H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon.
- Plattnerite from Stephen Baxter's The Time Machine sequel, The Time Ships, is an indeterminate, glowing green mineral that allows time travel. It's name and description are a Shout-Out to a character and material found in other Wells stories.
- Wells also had a previously undiscovered element present in the titular comet in The Day Of The Comet.
- Tom Swift had Tomasite. A super plastic, a 1 inch layer of it was better than a foot of lead at shielding a nuclear reactor.
- Harry Harrison's 1973 Golden Age SF spoof novel, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers features Cheddite (a fuel created from cheese). In another scene the heroes' 747 jet is turned into a spacecraft by means of windows armored with armolite, vacuum insulation with insulite, fuel tanks filled with combustite, guns firing pellets of destructite, batteries replaced with capacitite and a space-warp drive powered by warpite.
- In the Spaceforce universe, ships' hyperdrives are powered by a crystal called garrium which is found on only a few planets in the known galaxy. It is so valuable that entire planetary economies are based on scooping up tiny fragments of it in tonnes of dust.
- Melange, also called spice, in the Dune novels, extends life and grants limited prescience, allowing Faster-Than-Light Travel. And it tastes like cinnamon. Oh, and there are other uses. If it seems like something that would be extremely valuable and important, that's because it is. It's generally thought to be an Alternate Company Equivalent to oil in the way that it drives the greater economy and is controlled by warlike tribes.
- Iridium, a natural element that is extremely rare on Earth, is often used in more dramatic Sci-Fi stories.
- The German SF/pulp series Perry Rhodan has over the course of its history collected a fair bit of unobtainium in various forms. Classic examples are Ynkelonium, a metallic element that does not react with antimatter and can to an extent prevent such reactions from occurring in its immediate vicinity, and Luurs-Metal, which always maintains a constant temperature of about 3.4 degrees Celsius. Both materials occur naturally in the universe and cannot be synthesized.
- That's only two of the many examples, the series frequently introducing new and exotic materials, practically whenever a new alien species is encountered. The wiki for the series alone consists of at least 150 entries for exotic materials and is by no means complete.
- Mithril in The Lord of the Rings, an incredibly strong and silvery metal mined by dwarves.
- Larry Niven's Ringworld has a few examples:
- Scrith, the material used to make the titular megastructure. It is nearly frictionless, blocks almost all radiation (including 40% of neutrinos, which would take about a light-year thickness of lead) and has a tensile strength on the same order of magnitude as the strong nuclear force.
- The unnamed substance the Puppeteers make General Products hulls out of. They're actually massive molecules big enough to live in.
- In the Star Wars universe we have bacta, tibanna gas, transparisteel and durasteel (which itself is an alloy of carvanium, lommite, carbon, meleenium, neutronium, and zersium)... Well, let's say there are lots of interesting materials and substances in the Star Wars EU. Special mention goes to cortosis, which is lightsaber-resistant. Or in its purest form actually causes lightsabers to short out.
- Cortosis doesn't have a monopoly on the lightsaber-resisting properties: phrik, beskar(Mandalorian Iron), ultrachrome, and songsteel also boast that property, Mandalorian Iron and phrik are said to be even stronger to near Adamantium-like degrees, with a container made of phrik actually managing to stay intact after being on Alderaan when the planet was destroyed. Cortosis's ability to short out a lightsaber blade on contact, however, is unique to it alone.
- The Uplift Series by David Brin has a material of the name unobtainium.
- The hyperdrive of Kevin J. Anderson's The Saga of Seven Suns is fuelled by "ekti," described as "an allotropic isotope of hydrogen."
- Atium and Lerasium from the Mistborn books, atium is only mined in one place, it's extremely rare, and incredibly powerful, because it allows an allomancer to see a few moments into the future, effectively making them nearly invincible in combat. While only a few nuggets of Lerasium appear to exist and anyone who ingests Lerasium will instantaneously become a mistborn. All of the properties of Atium and Lerasium are ultimately justified by them being made from the bodies of gods.
- John Ringo's Looking Glass series is so named for the instantaneous transmission portals which were created by what were originally thought to be Higgs bosons. That identification was later corrected, and they were renamed Looking Glass Bosons. The looking glasses of the first book take a secondary role however, after the series takes off into space in a ship powered by a Black Box of alien origin, and when the ship is destroyed in the third book, it is entirely remade by an alien race the ship just saved. This leads to the fourth book where the captain of the ship discovers he is missing a large number of alien made spare parts and lampshades all of this saying, "And now I have to call SpaceCom and explain to them that we're non-mission-capable until a couple of tons of Unobtainium parts and tools get found!"
- John Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata series has an alien race able to produce materials with physical properties that the Earth scientists consider flatly impossible. It turns out that they do this by mentally altering the probability of chemical reactions, such that extremely unlikely reactions occur consistently enough to form new compounds that the Earth scientists and engineers cannot replicate.
- Practically every book in the old Danny Dunn children's scifi series starts out with the discovery of a new form of Unobtainium. Usually because Danny or a friend of his spilled something in the lab.
- Tanglestone from the Elizabeth Bear book, Undertow, was only found on the planet named Greene's World, and allowed instant data and material transportation across many light years from the colonies to Earth.
- In Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens series, there's living metal, which can only be gotten by one character, because it grows on her hand due to an accident involving fire and a staff with a metal top. Later she can make it faster by putting some in a jar and adding some of her blood to it, but she is still the only person who can make it, and thus the only one with consistent access to it.
- Rudyard Kipling's story The Night Mail has airships lifted by "Fleury's gas" energized by "Fleury's ray." The lifting power of the gas can apparently be rapidly adjusted, and is so great that airships are made rigid enough to achieve speeds of two hundred miles per hour without straining the hull or engines. (No real-world airshipnote has ever reached one hundred.)
- In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, industrialist Henry Rearden is introduced as a protagonist by way of his invention of "Rearden Metal," a somewhat vaguely-described alloy of steel and copper which is much stronger and cheaper to produce than industrial-grade steel.
- Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle gives us the Solomonic gold, and Stephenson also goes into a long digression on wootz steel, which is actually real and pretty damn awesome to boot.
- Neal Stephenson's Anathem has a material called New Matter that has drastically different properties than regular matter. It is explicitly stated that it is an alternative chemistry created by rearanging subatomic particles. This is based on Real Life physics with Exotic Matter.
- E. E. “Doc” Smith's Skylark Series features several nonexistent wonder-metals, including Arenak for super-tough armor, and Metal X which can convert matter completely into energy when exposed to X-rays.
- Humanity's escape from the doomed planet earth in When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer is finally made possible when tides from the approaching planet tear open the earth, revealing the previously hypothetical wonder-metal needed for nuclear-powered space travel.
- Wil Mc Carthy's Queendom of Sol series has quantum dots, which can imitate the properties of ordinary matter as well as manifesting exotic attributes like perfect reflectivity and frictionlessness. He also wrote a non-fiction novel called Hacking Matter that talks about the real-world possibility of using them. So, unobtainium today, but maybe not tomorrow.
- Discworld subverts this trope with octiron, a fantastic metal that's really only useful as a substitute for spherical worlds' compass magnets (it points to the Hub). Played straight with sapient pearwood, which is to blame for the Luggage's animation and magical properties.
- Neal Asher's The Polity series has Chainglass, a material made from silicon chain molecules that can be made near-indestructible and sharp enough to slice through steel with ease. Chainglass is used instead of metal and plastic in most applications. It also made the inventor the richest man in the galaxy.
- Urim in L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero's Daughter trilogy. Warrior angels wear it. It can hold the Water of Life. A gauntlet made of Urim allows the wielding of the Staff of Decay without harm.
- The Sten series has Anti-Matter Two, the only energy source capable of generating enough power to run hyperspace engines and make interstellar travel feasible. In all the Universe there is only a single source of AM2, and only the Eternal Emperor knows where it is.
- In Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Heaven, common coal have rare "slow" and "fast" coal that slow or speed up time inside it. The Big Bad had hundreds of young girl slaves move hands over small pieces of coal and pick out those specific coal pieces.
- Animorphs made a brief mention of ramonite, the metal that makes up most spacecraft and gives it its properties of stretching open doorways and opaquing/clearing the viewports.
- In Raise the Titanic! by Clive Cussler, the US hatches a military plan requiring ultra-rare byzanium. The only known deposit, on a remote Russian Arctic island, had been mined out in the early 20th century, and the entire output shipped out on an ocean liner to the United States. Guess which one.
- Phlogiston in The Extraordinaires. It is a semi-magical substance that allows Time Machines and other Steam Punk-ish gadgets beyond the realm of Edwardian science to function. Control of the supply of phlogiston is a powerful bargaining chip.
- Valyrian steel in A Song of Ice and Fire. It is a magical alloy created in old Valyria, and Valyrian steel weapons are far superior to weapons made of ordinary steel. The secret of creating Valyrian steel was lost when Valyria fell, but especially skilled blacksmiths can reforge swords from existing Valyrian steel.
- A few Robert Heinlein stories reference "Shipstones". These are, basically, very very very good batteries. The company that makes them will be happy to lease you one, but good luck getting one from any other source since their method of construction is secret and disassembling one to see how it works either gets you a non-working mess (if you're lucky) or dead (they tend to explode if taken apart).
Live Action TV
- Doctor Who - Dalek cases are made of Dalekanium, which makes them Immune to Bullets, although recent episodes showed that they now use a Deflector Shields variant to vaporize bullets before they even reach the case.
- Dalekanium is often called 'bonded polycarbide' when they want it to sound less silly. Which basically means plastic, specifically Kevlar. Various episodes have featured a group of people in a confined space looking for Unobtainium when suddenly they get attacked by the alien of the week. Dark Matter has been used as the unobtainium more than once and has several different uses and effects depending on what episode you see, from use as transport between dimensions to regular spaceship fuel to turning people into blood thirsty monsters.
- In Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, naquahdah is material the Gate is made of. Also, naquadah-enhanced nukes are used to Blow Stuff Up. This is demonstrated magnificently in the season 3 finale of Stargate Atlantis. Its evil twin is naquadriah, which can also be used to Blow Stuff Up, but is "unstable" and has a track record of blowing up its users. The iris on Earth's Stargate is made of a trinium-titanium alloy. Also, human-form Replicators apparently need neutronium (which is a real thing, but a bit exotic in that it can only have stable existence in a neutron star).
- Naquadah is also a powerful source of energy (naquadah reactors). Also ZPMs could be seen as a sort of unobtainium given that no one knows how to make them and they're needed to run all the Ancient technology in the series (as well as providing a convenient bit of Tim Taylor Technology to the human ships)
- Naquadriah also indirectly plays the Unobtainium role in Stargate Universe as the only known power source that can support a wormhole between the Milky Way and Destiny. Only problem is that it takes a planet full of the stuff to do it, and that planet tends to blow up in the process.
- The whole of Star Trek is liberally sprinkled with various types and grades of unobtainium; the original (and most frequently recurring) example is dilithium, used in the reactor core of warp drives as a control medium, but there are many others:
- Corbomite, which doesn't actually exist; it was an Ass Pull by James T. Kirk to bluff an enemy — which means that Trek pulled a Lampshade Hanging on their own tendency to invent vaguely-magical substances in one of its earliest episodes.
- Neutronium. This is a real substance: a type of "degenerate matter" composed entirely of neutrons, thought to be what neutron stars are made of — but since even a thimbleful would weigh millions of tons, its usefulness as a material is rather limited. Astrophysicists rarely if ever use the word "neutronium" for this stuff, preferring terms like neutron-degenerate matter, and that that neutron star matter would not be stable without the extreme pressures of a neutron star in the first place anyway, i.e. it would instantly explode producing extremely intense neutron radiation.
- Duranium, Tritanium, Baakonite
- Latinum, a valuable liquid metal, used as a form of hard currency due to its rarity and the fact that replicator technology cannot recreate it.
- Trilithium, less stable than dilithium, but equally magical.
- Keiyurium, a Shout-Out to the original Dirty Pair.
- Vertenium-Cortenide, a compound of two non-existent substances, used in the warp coils themselves.
- Archerite, another Ass Pull, this time by the Andorian Shran when explaining to another alien commander what he was doing in their territory.
- Transparent aluminum. which gets bonus points, given that a normal modern chemist could apparently figure out what it was just by looking at the atomic structure. Naturally, he would still be helpless to reproduce it without a diagram of said structure.
- Transparent aluminum exists now. See here
- Aluminum Oxynitride is a ceramic, however. Transparent aluminum metal remains unobtainium.
- Cortenide, which comprises Data's skull with duranium, as he describes to a Klingon warrior who almost knocked himself out headbutting him.
- Trellium-D formed a major Mineral MacGuffin for the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise, which has the ability to negate the random anomalies that existed in the Expanse. Interestingly, there appeared to be a sub-science developed around the item, with a method of synthesizing the stuff.
- At one point in Star Trek: Voyager when aliens try to kidnap Paris for the weapons research that has been implanted in his brain, Janeway mentions that they packed the shuttle he was captured in with fulmorite explosives.
- Both versions of Battlestar Galactica relied on a fictional element called "tylium" to power their FTL drives.
- And an episode of Star Trek: Voyager had an alien species using the same exact fuel by name!
- In Power Rangers Time Force, Trizirium Crystals are an very powerful energy source that originally won't be discovered about 200 years from 2001, because of the battles between the Time Force Rangers and Ransik, as well as Bio-Lab trying to reverse-engineer the future tech the early discovery nearly sucked the world into time vortices in the "End of Time" three-part finale.
- Power Rangers RPM has flux overthrusters needed to handle advanced zord control stuff. The first one was lost in the wastelands after the plane it was installed in was shot down. The second...well, it's lucky that that's when the bad guys sent a bot capable of Power Copying.
- The jumpgates and jumpdrives of Babylon 5 relied on an exotic and extremely rare mineral called Quantium-40 to function.
- In Knight Rider (the original series), KITT was built out of a material called either Tri-Helical MBS (Commonly referred to as a "Molecular-Bonded Shell") or Plasteel 1000, which rendered the car almost indestructible.
- In the TV series of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, it's revealed that an element Wayne named "Szalinskium" is at the core of all his impossible inventions. In another episode it's revealed that he obtained it from the space alien Arnox.
- In a two-part episode of the Lynda Carter TV adaptation of Wonder Woman, we learn that her indestructable bullet-deflecting bracelets are made of "Feminum." (This is in contrast with the Comic Book canon, which at the time held that her bracelets were made of "Amazonium.")
- In The Amazing Extraordinary Friends, the X insignia is specifically stated to be made of unobtanium, which is how it bestows all manner of superpowers on Captain X.
Myth and Legend
- The oldest example would be Orichalcum (Orichalc, orichalcos) which is part of the Atlantis myth - Plato describes it as somewhat reddish, shiny, and hard, and usable both as armor and art. Conspiracy buffs identify it with an alloy of gold and copper from South America that does, in fact, have these properties.
- Adamant, which has a legendary hardness dating back centuries, being an older name for diamond. Unfortunately, it also shares a name with an adjective, and so tends to be saddled with suffixes. Look for Adamantine, or for that Sci-Fi twist, Adamantium.
- The entire premise of ancient and medieval Alchemy was based on the pseudo-scientific search for Unobtainium ("philosopher's stone" or "quintessence"), usually described as a material which would catalyze the manufacture of gold from base metals.
- The Red Matter in Stern Pinball's Star Trek; getting enough of it creates a Black Hole, which awards a mystery prize.
- Unobtainium is one of the playfield targets in Avatar.
- Shadowrun, true to its fantasy-scifi-blend form, borrows from myths for its Unobtainium, such as orichalcum, an alloy of copper, gold, silver, and mercury that couldn't even begin to exist if there wasn't magic in the world.
- In Warhammer 40,000, almost every race has a form of this, from the psychic wraith bone to the ubiquitous armour plate the humans use on tanks, adamantium. Adamantium's properties are never really explained, though, in the books, it seems to suffer from a mineral variation of The Worf Effect ("How could they cut through X many feet of adamantium that easily?!"); another worf effect example is the material used in Space Marine power armour, Ceramite (often such examples involve either cutting blades, or melta/heat weapons as ceramite is reckoned to be extremely resistant to heat). This also happens a lot with human building materials in that universe, all of which have odd but recognizable names and are supposedly better than what we have now, but which can be reduced to rubble in the first bombardment.
- The technology levels in the setting also cause some rather strange applications for the unobtainium, such as adamantium bayonets fitted to the lasguns of the Imperial Guard.
- Promethium is some kind of super fuel (or a generic term for any fuel), which is used in everything from their warmachines and flamethrowers, and can be harvested from gas planets, some kinds of ice, and in mineral form.
- In Warhammer (fantasy setting of 40000), glowing green 'warpstone' is used to create mutations, enhance magical powers, bring the dead to life, and as an energy source for powerful technology. In the Skaven rat-men society, it is even used as currency. Warpstone is considered rare, and is mined and collected by nearly all factions in the Warhammer setting. The Warhammer world also has a moon composed entirely of warpstone, Morrslieb, which rains warpstone meteor showers on occasion.
- Dungeons & Dragons has mithril, adamantine, orichalchum, AND the Philosopher's Stone. Unobtainium overload... and that's the tip of the iceberg.
- Eberron has Dragonshards, Khyber Dragonshards, Siberys Dragonshards, Star Metal, Baatorian Steel, Residuum, Arcanite, Byeshk, Ironwood, Bronzewood, Densewood, Soarwood & Riedran Crysteel. Unobtainium overload indeed.
- Red steel, cinnabril, and related substances from the "Red Steel" region of Mystara.
- Bloodsilver from the Birthright setting.
- Exalted features the five magical materials, Orichalcum, Moonsilver, Starmetal, some variants of Jade and Soulsteel. All of these are extremely difficult to obtain and work: Orichalcum only forms when gold touches magma and has to be worked in a lava flow while sunlight streams onto the forge, Moonsilver only forms in the Wyld, where reality is breaking down, Starmetal is made from dead gods and, while working it is theoretically as simple as iron, Fate conspires to make the manufacturing process go wrong in ten thousand little ways, Soulsteel is made from ore from the Labyrinth (under the Underworld) and ghosts, Jade requires hazardous chemicals to work and is used as a currency, admittedly an extremely high-value one. There is even an Unobtainium version of Jade - in rare and unrepeatable alchemical accidents Jade (most normally a mixture of white and green Jade) can be turned into Yellow Jade which is possibly the most coveted magical material out there.
- With the release of the Alchemical sourcebook, there now exists a sixth basic magical material as well: Adamant. It is extremely rare in the main world of Creation, and only slightly more commonly found in the machine-body world of the Primordial Autochthon. To quote the sourcebook, "Adamant is composed of super-dense, electric-blue diamonds that form in yard-long rod-like masses with smaller crystals growing off larger ones. They can be found in areas that are under enormous pressure and are scorchingly hot. Mining for adamant is impossible without protective gear, even for Exalts, and special tools must be used to cut the crystalline rods free so that they can be taken back to a city and refined into useable forms." Though it is a crystal, rather than a metal or stone like the other materials, it is used in the forging of magic weapons and armor in an identical way to the others.
- Solars. One of the reasons that Solar technology is unsustainable by anybody else is due to their Wyld Shaping powers. When Solars need a material with properties relevent to the artifact or Magitech they are building, they just go out into the Wyld and conjure it up, regardless of how impossible its existence would otherwise be.
- The "Perfected Metals" of Mage: The Awakening. They have numerous extremely useful properties (perfected iron, for example, is practically indestructible, capable of cutting through diamond when properly sharpened, and can bend like rubber before returning to its original shape, with absolutely no metal fatigue), and can be used to create all manner of useful alloys (such as the anti-magic "thaumium"). There are only seven of them (only alchemical metals can be perfected), and it takes powerful magic to perfect them and alloy them. Perfecting is also a very expensive process, since it requires only naturally formed samples of metal (rather than transmuted or conjured) and only 10% of the mass yields perfected metal, with the rest being completely lost (hence, you perfect 100 grams of metal and only get 10 grams of perfected metal, with the remainder destroyed).
- Apeiron, a material that can only be produced by some archmasters and appears to be some sort of Platonic ideal: it has whatever physical properties are best for the situation at hand. This is actually an example of an author being extremely informed; in a philosophical debate in ancient Greece philosophers argued over which Element was the foundation of all existence. The winner of the debate proposed 'Apeiron' over any of the traditional four elements, describing it as 'undifferentiated stuff' that could concentrate into different configurations to form anything.
- As well as the lanthanum used in jump drive technology, Traveller features so many varieties of unobtainium that the latest edition lampshades it by including "unobtainium" as a trade good.
- Ghost Rock, which burns twice as long and twice as hot as coal, is used for all the weird high tech stuff from Deadlands and somehow stopped the collapse of the Confederacy. Oh, and it looks like coal that has had tortured human faces into it, and it moans faintly when burned.
- The various essential elements from GURPS: Magic as well as orichalcum and adamantium in Fantasy and hyperdense matter in Ultra-Tech.
- Although it's a tabletop war game rather than a tabletop RPG, Steve Jackson Games' OGRE features combat units protected by Biphase Carbide armor. This makes them tough enough to withstand anything short of a direct hit from a nuclear weapon.
- Talislanta has a number of forms of Unobtainium, some based on historical alchemy and others made up for the setting, and fairly thorough rules for crafting and utilizing them.
- In the boardgame Nexus Ops (originally by Avalon Hill, recently re-released by Fantasy Flight Games), the corporations fight for control of a mineral called Rubium. Nothing more is known about it from the manual, but it seems that some indigenous species on the planet it is mined on are linked to the mineral in some way as there is a creature called the "Rubium Dragon" which is also the most powerful unit in the game.
- The Transformers franchise is a pretty good place to mine for Unobtainium, Energon being the most frequent and the best example: Transformers need it to live, but too much unstable Energon radiation can cause shorting out. It's also highly volatile when stored in most environments (and likely to explode if dropped or fired upon), and other properties too bizarre and diverse to list. Other Unobtainium-like materials include...
- Electrum (A real substance, actually, but given fictional properties)
- Furmanite (Obscure, used only in one Botcon-exclusive comic)
- Nucleon (Though used as an Energon substitute, it causes bizarre reactions in a Transformer's "biology", most notably the loss of transformation ability.)
- Cybertonium (Never thoroughly explained, though it breaks down more rapidly in Earth's atmosphere than other Cybertronian minerals. Loss of this substance is serious for Transformers built on Cybertron. Like Energon, it can also be processed and stored in cubes.)
- BIONICLE's Matoran world has protodermis (often shortened to just "proto" by the fans), which admittedly isn't really rare because it makes up everything in that world: the water is made of liquid proto, rocks and metal ore are solid proto, and proto even makes up the organic tissues of living beings. Truer examples of Unobtainium that really are hard to obtain include a super-hard variant of metal protodermis called "protosteel" and "energized protodermis": an un-synthesizable liquid that either unpredictably transforms anything it touches or destroys it. Oh, and it turns out energized proto is alive, too.
- Another world, Bara Magna, has its own Unobtainium called Exsidian, though unlike protodermis it doesn't have any special properties beyond better resistance to wear and tear.
"I do know that this mysterious, state-of-the-art, super-strong, super-conducting, lightweight, fruit-flavored, and all-around amazing substance is somehow created by combining tons of Oil and Ore in a very secretive, elaborate, and sometimes smelly process. I also know that Sims of the future will be chomping at the bit to get their hands on it, and that’s where OmegaCo comes in."
- In the space combat MMO Moon Breakers, Helium-3 is the main reason two factions are fighting each other in the first place.
- In Space Age, one of the main objectives of the Proteus-Z's expedition to Kepler-16 is to locate sources of Nucleum ore.
- Whateley Universe has plenty of Unobtainium. They've stolen adamantium from the Marvel Universe, and they've included some of the mystical variants, including orichalcium and mithril. Oddly enough, at the Super Hero School Whateley Academy, mithril no longer counts as true Unobtainium, because there's a side character (Silver, a girl from India) who sweats mithril. The school has had to set up a mithril brokerage.
- A beautiful example is the wonderflonium of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, so salient it's essentially a lampshade.
- The League of Intergalactic Cosmic Champions had Plotonium as a generic whatever-the-plot-required supermetal. Also a building block of the universe that allowed people to have superpowers was Nevesytrof (much more stable then the Sub-Reality or Super-Reality of other universes.)
- Protectors of the Plot Continuum has Generic Surface. A material created when locations and surfaces in fanfics are given little or no description, the Flowers have used it to build PPC Headquarters due to its durability, structural integrity, and the fact that there is a readily available supply to make such a huge building out of.
- Not a metal, but falling under this heading, is Bleeprin and its derivatives. Bleeprin is a mixture of bleach and aspirin, advertised as 'brain bleach', which erases the memory of a bad fanfic and then the headache it gave the agents. Derivatives include Bleepka (Bleeprin and synthetic vodka, a very popular derivative, often used for making cocktails), Bleepolate (Bleeprin and chocolate), and Bleepsinthe (Bleeprin and synthetic absinthe). Bleeprin's only real downside is that it explodes when mixed with real alcohol, hence the use of synthesised substitutes.
- The SCP Foundation has SCP-148, also known as Telekill. This stuff is incredibly useful, but the Foundation hasn't been able to fully analyse it, let alone make more of the stuff.
- The inventions of The Spoony Experiment's Doctor Insano are powered by Raritanium.
- Super Stories has Electronium, resistant to all known methods of scanning (including superpowered ones). Apart from one villain's secret lair being made out of the stuff, no known piece is larger than a pebble.
- Allen Fesler writes stories set in the Chakona Space 'Verse. One of his inventions is boronike, which is extremely valuable and very useful to engineering types. It is commonly used in teleporter tech because of its inability to be teleported.
- Orion's Arm has several flavours of unobtanium, but is notable that they try to be a reasonably hard sci-fi setting and so have put very careful thought into its plausibility and possible uses.
- Magmatter, made from magnetic monopoles is perhaps one of the cleverest, and has a reasonable amount of vaguely plausible science behind it. Magmatter facilitates megastructures like Ringworlds thanks to its incredible tensile strength, Cool Starship engines that perfectly convert matter to energy without all that nasty mucking around with antimatter due to magmatters ability to catalyse baryon decay, dense enough magnetic current to make Plasma Cannon useful and RailGuns easy and stranger things like gamma ray lenses and mirrors that couldn't be built out of normal matter.
- Exotic bosonic matter with negative mass that can hold open a wormhole and support a slower-than-light inertialess drive system.
- Antimatter, of course, but also curious things from theoretical physics like q-balls and q-mirrors that allow complete and easy conversion of matter to antimatter.
- In the fantasy world that Paul Twister is stuck in, aluminum is considered Unobtanium, since they don't have the technology to produce it easily yet. (The story correctly notes that it requires electricity, which is still in the early stages of being discovered.) On the more fantastical side, the bones and scales of dead dragons are very rare and highly sought after by wizards, because they can apparently provide a material link that comes in handy should you ever end up in a fight with a living dragon.
- RWBY has the crystalline Dust, which causes various elemental effects and powers the improbable weapons used to fight the Grimm. Without it, humanity would have gone extinct a long time ago.
- This is the notional material used in the manufacture of that very important tool or part which you can't seem to find anywhere. For example, at this time, 16 bit PCMCIA cards are one of many peripherals that can be said to be made of Unobtainium.
- There are many real world examples of unobtainium, perhaps making this one Truth in Television. While the ideas of Mithril and Vibranium actually existing on our earth may be laughable, the idea of a mineral/resource that is near impossible to obtain is almost a historical trope.
- When Aluminium was first discovered, it was considered unobtainium, because although it's actually the most common metallic element on Earth, it was very difficult to extract from its ores. Hence, The Washington Monument was capped with a pyramidal ingot of pure aluminum, Napoleon III's sets of dinnerware made from aluminum, and the statue of Anteros in London. Then Hall (and, independently, Héroult) discovered an easy way to make aluminium, and it stopped being unobtainium two years later with the construction of the first large-scale aluminum refining plant. You're probably drinking out of an aluminum can right now.
- Astatine: it was estimated that the amount of astatine in the planet barely can be gathered in a spoon, with around 30 grams existing on the entire Earth at any one time. This is because it is a product of radioactive decay, but is radioactive itself, with a half-life of 8.3 hours before decaying to lead.
- During the Cold War, most of the significant titanium mines were either in the Soviet Union or elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc. As a result, Western aircraft designers often half-jokingly referred to the stuff as "unobtainium." Eventually, new mines were discovered in Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Norway—all safely outside Soviet influence—and titanium stopped being unobtainium for the West. U.S. aircraft designers during this period are the Trope Namer.
- On the other hand the largest producer in the world is still in Russia. Though they now sell to everyone, and actually almost all titanium Boeing now uses is bought from them.
- Also during the Cold War, the US Air Force had a strong desire to develop antimatter bombs, perhaps feeling that hydrogen bombs just weren't apocalyptic enough. Fortunately, there is no known natural source of antimatter and no practical way to make it that can produce the macroscopic quantities of the stuff needed for bombs, and no practical way to contain the stuff safely enough for long enough to make such a weapon useful - critically, a nuclear bomb will not explode unless you want it to, while an antimatter bomb will always try to explode whether you want it to or not.
- And yet again during the Cold War, a mythic substance known as "red mercury" was used for disinformation purposes by the Soviet Union. This substance was supposedly a high-temperature superconductor, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons, a ballotechnic and a component of certain types of stealth paint. It was apparently successfully used in a number of sting operations, since any organisation or rogue government seeking "red mercury" was clearly up to no good.
- Wootz steel is a very specific historic case of this. It's made out of crucible-fired sand consisting of iron and tungsten carbide, which only naturally occurs in a very few places, almost all of them in central Asia. The process for making it was lost for centuries after the ore ran out, and was only rediscovered very recently through chemical analysis (the ore contained trace amounts of vanadium that created an unusual spiky crystal structure in the solidifying ingots). By all accounts, wootz steel is both stronger and more flexible than ordinary steel; back when swords were still used as weapons, Indo-Persian swords were highly valued throughout India and the Middle East because of this.
- Pandemonium Chloride is the evil, HAZMAT twin of unobtainium, a material of unspecified composition that greatly endangers human life with the smallest spills or leaks.
- Chlorine trifluoride is the real-world stuff. Derek Lowe has a nightmarish description at his blog on Corante.com. From that article: "It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem. It is hypergolic (combusts spontaneously) with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured. It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, and asbestos, sand, and water-with which it reacts explosively."
- Greek fire. Accounts say it was a combination of volatile chemicals in liquid form that, when launched, would burn on and be ignited by water. There are several possible candidates for its original formula, or possibly formulae, but the exact details are lost to history.
- Carbon nanotubes have immensely useful electronic, optical, and mechanical properties, including a strength-to-weight ratio vastly superior to any building material currently in use. Sadly, as of 2010, even poor grade nanotubes go for about $100/gram. Guess that space elevator will have to wait a few more years. The biggest problem with them at the moment is to avoid cumulative weakening, as at the moment the more nanotubes you stock together, the more the nanoscopic faults accumulate, until their strength is all but gone. Still, many scientists are confident that they'll have long and durable nanotube strings in a couple of years.
- Mountain biker slang for a bike made of a rare or expensive material is also 'unobtainium'.
- In the late 70's Silicon Valley, there were two popular materials for solving otherwise intractable engineering problems, very specifically: Unobtainium-12 and Expensium-6. Neither was in the Grainger's or Thomas catalog.
- Rare-earth elements are used in most modern electronics, and aren't really rare, but they are hard to find in an economically-usable state. And, in addition, 97% of rare-earth mining is done in China. Because of their usefulness, worries that the Chinese could cut off or severely reduce exports of it is enough that now others countries are looking into reopening mines almost solely so that the Chinese cannot make unobtainium of them.
- NASCAR racer Junior Johnson had a friend in the aerospace industry who wanted him to try out a brand new material they'd cooked up: carbon fiber. Johnson sent him a pair of control arms to be copied in the material, and was astounded that they weighed less than a single steel arm. Since he was the only person with access to it, there were no rules preventing him from replacing as many parts as he liked with CF. The racing body only took notice of these parts when they were worried that his carbon brakes, visibly glowing from heat, might cause a tire fire.
- Needless to say, carbon fiber is now commonly used in both Formula 1 cars and many high-end exotic cars, starting with the 1994 McLaren F1.
- Nuclear physics has created Exotic Matter in exceedingly minute quantities. Synthetic baryons (baryons are particles such as protons and neutrons) contain configurations other than the standard two up/one down, one up/two down, quark arrangements. Theoretically such femtotechnology could lead to a dazzling array of alternate chemistries. Thousands of alternate periodic tables may be possible, maybe more.
- The synthetic baryons all decay rapidly (the order of 10^-10 sec or shorter halflifes). The chemistry of an atom is determined by the electrons surrounding the nucleus. Atoms with synthetic baryons would be considered different isotopes of the same element.
- Recently a Japanese team reported the discovery of a so-called tetraquark — an exotic baryon consisting of four quarks instead of a normal three. Despite being roughly equally important to modern particle physics, the news were drowned by the buzz of a Higgs boson discovery, which has much better publicity.
- Similarly to a rare-earth matter above, the incredibly rare and expensive platinoid metal, rhenium, has all types of possible uses, mainly because it gives nearly magical properties to the metals it is alloyed with. Unfortunately, it is so rare that it's used mainly in aircraft engines, where its cost can be justified. There is one single concentrated deposit on the whole planet, discharging as a sulfide gas from a single fumarole on the side of a volcano on the South Kurile island of Iturup, which is disputed between Russia and Japan. It is possible that the harder position Russia has recently taken about the Kurile issue might be explained by the wish to protect and exploit this deposit.
- Wood for shipbuilding was an Unobtanium for Venice and for England and other similar naval empires. Not just any wood but the right kind of wood for the right jobs. Trees that had longer trunks, for instance, received favor, for their utility in building certain long parts of ships; oak was favored for many purposes—especially for warships—because it is sturdier (with live oak from the American South being particularly prized); trees with tall, straight trunks were needed to build masts; and pine was needed to produce pitch and tar, needed for waterproofing and other purposes (e.g. preventing shipworm from afflicting their vessels). Hence Wooden Ships and Iron Men. This could often be an element and not always a positive one in the relations between Britain and America and Scandinavian countries, both of which were among the main suppliers. The loss of the American supply of timber, pitch, and tar for the Royal Navy was actually a key catalyst for the Industrial Revolution; the search for a source of pitch led a particularly hapless poor Scottish earl to develop processes to efficiently produce coal tar, which directly led to the first gas lighting (and therefore the 24-hour factory and shift work) and indirectly led to the modern chemical industry.