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Unobtainium (or unobtanium) is a term used in fiction, engineering, and common situations for a material ideal for a particular application but impractically difficult or impossible to obtain. Unobtainium originally referred to materials that do not exist at all, but can also be used to describe real materials that are unavailable due to extreme rarity or cost. Less commonly, it can mean a device with desirable engineering properties for an application that are exceedingly difficult or impossible to achieve.

The properties of any particular example of unobtainium depend on the intended use. For example, a pulley made of unobtainium might be massless and frictionless. But for a nuclear rocket, unobtainium might have the needed qualities of lightness, strength at high temperatures, and resistance to radiation damage; a combination of all three qualities is impossible with today's materials. The concept of unobtainium is often applied hand-wavingly, flippantly, or humorously.

The word unobtainium derives humorously from unobtainable, with -ium, a suffix for chemical element names. It predates the similar-sounding systematic element names, such as ununennium. An alternative spelling, unobtanium, is sometimes used, by analogy to the names of real elements like titanium and uranium.

Engineering origin[edit]

Since the late 1950s, aerospace engineers have used the term "unobtainium" when referring to unusual or costly materials, or when theoretically considering a material perfect for their needs in all respects, except that it does not exist.

Unobtainium, n. A substance having the exact high test properties required for a piece of hardware or other item of use, but not obtainable either because it theoretically cannot exist or because technology is insufficiently advanced to produce it. Humorous or ironical.

— Listed in "Interim Glossary, Aero-Space Terms," as compiled by Woodford Heflin and published in February 1958 by the Air University of the US Air Force.[1]

By the 1990s, the term was in wide use, even in formal engineering papers such as "Towards unobtainium [new composite materials for space applications]."[2][3]

The word "unobtainium" may well have been coined in the aerospace industry to refer to materials capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures expected in re-entry.[1] Aerospace engineers are frequently tempted to design aircraft which require parts with strength or resilience beyond that of currently available materials.

Later, "unobtainium" became an engineering term for practical materials that really exist, but are difficult to get.[4] For example, during the development of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, Lockheed engineers at the "Skunk Works" under Clarence "Kelly" Johnson used 'unobtainium' as a dysphemism for titanium. Titanium allowed a higher strength-to-weight ratio at the high temperatures the Blackbird would reach, but its availability was restricted because the Soviet Union controlled its supply. This created a problem for the U.S. during the Cold War because the Blackbird required huge amounts of titanium (and subsequent U.S. military aircraft such as the F-15, F-18, and F-22 fighters and the B-1 bomber required relatively large amounts of it as well).

Contemporary popularization[edit]

Unobtainium began to be used among people who are neither science fiction fans nor engineers to denote an object that actually exists, but which is very hard to obtain either because of high price (sometimes referred to as "unaffordium") or limited availability. It usually refers to a very high-end and desirable product. By the 1970s, the term had migrated from the aerospace industry to the Southern California automobile and motorcycle cultures and, began to appear in industry publications such as early advertisements for Oakley motorcycle handgrips.[5]

Other examples are rear cassettes in the mountain biking community,[6] parts that are no longer available for old-car enthusiasts,[7][8] parts for reel-to-reel audio-tape recorders, and rare vacuum tubes such as the 1L6 or WD-11 that can now cost more than the equipment in which they were fitted.[9] The eyewear and fashion wear company Oakley, Inc. also frequently denotes the material used for many of their eyeglass nosepieces and earpieces, which has the unusual property of increasing tackiness and thus grip when wet, as unobtanium.[10]

By 2010, the term had been used in mainstream news reports to describe the commercially useful rare earth elements (particularly terbium, erbium, dysprosium, yttrium, and neodymium), which are essential to the performance of consumer electronics and green technology, but whose projected demand far outstrips their current supply.[11][12][13]

There have been repeated attempts to attribute the name to a real material. Space elevator research has long used "unobtainium" to describe a material with the necessary characteristics,[14][15] but carbon nanotubes might have these characteristics.[16]

Science fiction[edit]

A piece of the valuable "unobtanium" from Avatar

Unobtainium was mentioned briefly in David Brin's 1983 book Startide Rising,[17] as a material that could be used in making weapons[18] and comprising 1% of the core of one of the exomoons of the Kthsemenee system.[19]

Unobtainium is briefly mentioned in Wil McCarthy's The Collapsium (2000), where a programmable quantum-technology material called "wellstone" can simulate any conceivable element, including "imaginary substances like unobtainium, impossibilium, and rainbow kryptonite".[20]

In the 2003 film The Core,[21] "Unobtainium" is the nickname of a 37-syllable long tungsten-titanium crystal alloy developed by Dr. Edward "Braz" Brazzelton that is able to absorb the extreme pressure and heat of the Earth's molten core and then convert these into usable energy, even electricity; it's used in building the super resistant outer shell of the ship Virgil.[22]

In the 2009 film Avatar,[23] "Unobtanium" is the common name of a rare-earth mineral found exclusively in the exomoon Pandora (where the movie takes place, being the fifth moon of the gas giant Polyphemus, which orbits Alpha Centauri A), highly prized (and priced) because of its application as a powerful superconductor material; because of its unusual magnetic properties, entire mountains with high concentrations of unobtanium "levitate" in the atmosphere of Pandora.

Similar terms[edit]

The term eludium has been used to describe a material which has "eluded" attempts to develop it, with the variant spelling illudium derived from "illusion". This was mentioned in several Looney Tunes cartoons, where Marvin the Martian tried (unsuccessfully) to use his "Eludium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator" to blow up the Earth.[24]

Another largely synonymous term is wishalloy,[25] although the sense is often subtly different in that a wishalloy usually does not exist at all, whereas unobtainium may merely be unavailable.

A similar conceptual material in alchemy is the philosopher's stone, a mythical substance with the ability to turn lead into gold, or bestow immortality and youth. While the search to find such a substance was not successful, it did lead to discovery of a new element: phosphorus.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Since at least the 1950s: Hansen, James R. (1987) "Engineer in Charge: A History of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 1917–1958". The NASA History Series, sp-4305. Chapter 12, recounting an October 1957 meeting, mentions the problems caused by "the lack of a superior high-temperature material (which the Langley structures people dubbed 'unobtainium')" This paragraph in turn cites Becker, John V. "The Development of Winged Reentry Vehicles, 1952–1963", unpublished, dated 23 May 1983.
  2. ^ Misra, Mohan (Nov–Dec 1990). "Towards unobtainium [new composite materials for space applications]". Aerospace Composites and Materials. 2: 29–32. Archived from the original on 2009-04-24.
  3. ^ Dean, Edwin B. (1989). "Parametric cost analysis: a design function". American Association of Cost Engineers 33rd Annual Meeting. Vol. 25. p. 28. CiteSeerX
  4. ^ "Unobtainium". Metal Suppliers Online. Retrieved 2010-06-04. We can loosely define it as any metal that is specified by Engineering and unavailable to Purchasing
  5. ^ "Oakely Terminology". eyewearthese.com. 2023-08-13.
  6. ^ Mat Brett (Jan 5, 2012). "Spin Unobtanium Monobloc Cassette". Road.cc.
  7. ^ Jay Ramey (Dec 10, 2019). "Hey, Lancia Delta Integrale owners, FCA found some unobtainium-level stuff you might be interested in". autoWeek.
  8. ^ Chris Petris, How to Restore Your Corvette, 1963-1967, p. 13, CarTech Inc, 2012 ISBN 193470976X.
  9. ^ Rob Squire (Jul 18, 2018). "On the Bench #65" (PDF). AudioTechnology.
  10. ^ Graham Cottingham (Jun 21, 2019). "Oakley Cycling Sunglasses". Cycling News.
  11. ^ Jeremy Hsu (Sep 20, 2010). "Boeing launches search for crucial rare earth elements". NBC.
  12. ^ Hodge, Nathan (2010-03-16). "Congress Holds Hearings on Unobtainium". wired.com. Retrieved 2010-06-04. The House Committee on Science and Technology's investigations and oversight panel is holding a hearing today on rare-earth metal supplies, focusing on China's near-monopoly on the stuff.
  13. ^ Kosich, Dorothy (2010-01-13). "The Rare Earth Revolution has investors stampeding". Mineweb. Archived from the original on 2014-02-01. Retrieved 2010-06-04. Metals analyst Christopher Ecclestone suggests the hunt for Unobtainium storyline reminds him 'of some of the talk surrounding Rare Earths (REE) these days'
  14. ^ Arnold, James R.; Thompson, William B. (1992). "Advanced propulsion for LEO-Moon transport: II. Tether configurations in the LEO-Moon system: The Role of "Unobtainium"". Nasa. Johnson Space Center, the Second Conference on Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century, Volume 1. Lunar and Planetary Institute: 57. Bibcode:1992lbsa.conf...55A.
  15. ^ "Going Up? Private Group Begins Work on Space Elevator". Space.com. Archived from the original on 2010-04-06. Retrieved 2010-05-19.
  16. ^ DAVID APPELL (Jun 14, 2017). "BUILDING AN ELEVATOR TO SPACE". Pacific Standard.
  17. ^ Brin, David (1983). Startide Rising. Internet Archive. Toronto ; New York : Bantam. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-553-23495-4.
  18. ^ "Elementary, My Dear Watson". ansible.uk. Retrieved 2024-04-08.
  19. ^ "Unobtainium by David Brin from Startide Rising". www.technovelgy.com. Retrieved 2024-04-08.
  20. ^ "SFE: Unobtainium". sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2024-04-08.
  21. ^ "At its center, 'The Core' is a fun ride - Los Angeles Times". Los Angeles Times. 28 March 2003. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03.
  22. ^ "What scientists love and lament when Hollywood journeys to Earth's core". NPR Short Wave. July 7, 2023.
  23. ^ Wilhelm, Maria; Dirk Mathison (November 2009). James Cameron's Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora. HarperCollins. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-06-189675-0.
  24. ^ Differences of opinion exist regarding the correct pronunciation; Chuck Jones rendered the modulator's name as Q-36 in print in Chuck Amuck : The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989; ISBN 0-374-12348-9), p. 213
  25. ^ Heppenheimer, Thomas A. (1999). "NASA SP-4221: The Space Shuttle Decision – NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle". Chapter 8
  26. ^ "Experts Warn of Impending Phosphorus Crisis", by Hilmar Schmundt, Spiegel, 21 April 2010

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