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In fiction, engineering, and thought experiments, unobtainium is any hypothetical, fictional, extremely rare, costly, or impossible material. Less commonly, it can refer to a device with desirable engineering properties for an application, but which are difficult or impossible to achieve. The properties of any particular unobtainium depend on the intended use. For example, a pulley made of unobtainium might be massless and frictionless; however, if used in a nuclear rocket, unobtainium might be light, strong at high temperatures, and resistant to radiation damage. The concept of unobtainium is often applied hand-waving, flippantly or humorously.
The word unobtainium derives humorously from unobtainable with the suffix -ium, the conventional designation for a chemical element. It pre-dates the similar-sounding IUPAC systematic element names, such as ununennium. An alternative spelling, unobtanium is sometimes used based on the spelling of metals such as titanium.
Since the late 1950s,[a] 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. By the 1990s, the term was in wide use, even in formal engineering papers such as "Towards unobtainium [new composite materials for space applications]." 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. 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. 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.[b]
By 2010, the term had diffused beyond engineering, and now can appear in the headlines of mainstream newspapers, especially to describe the commercially useful rare earth elements (particularly terbium, erbium, dysprosium, yttrium, and neodymium). These are essential to the performance of consumer electronics and green technology, but the projected demand for them so outstrips their current supply that they are called "unobtainiums" within the ore industry and by commentators on the US Congressional hearings into the "supply security" of rare-earths.
"Unobtainium" has come to be used as a synonym for "unobtainable" 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; for instance, in the mountain biking community, "These titanium hubs are unobtainium, man!" Old-car enthusiasts use "unobtainium" to describe parts that are vanishingly rare or no longer available.
In maintaining old equipment, unobtainium refers to replacement parts that are no longer made, such as parts for reel-to-reel audio-tape recorders or rare vacuum tubes that cost more than the equipment they are fitted to (especially true of certain vacuum tubes, such as the 1L6, used almost exclusively in American battery-powered shortwave radios or the WD-11 used in certain early 1920s radios). Similarly, parts for classic & vintage Ferraris are made by a company actually named Unobtainium Supply Co.
There have been repeated attempts to attribute the name to a real material. Because of the long-standing usage of the term "unobtainium" within the space elevator research community to describe a material with the necessary characteristics, LiftPort Group President Michael Laine has advocated assigning the term as the generic name for cables woven of carbon nanotube fibers, which seem to satisfy the requirements for this application. Since he claimed that sufficiently long nanotube cables will be prohibitively expensive to develop without inexpensive access to microgravity, these cables would still be close enough to unobtainable to meet the definition. However, this usage does not seem to have become widespread. 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.
Frequent Sunday night/Monday morning host of Coast to Coast AM George Knapp usually opens his show mentioning unobtainium. As a play on the word, Obtainium is an album by Skeleton Key, released in 2002 by Ipecac Recordings.
Unobtainium can refer to any substance that is needed to build some device critical to the plot of a science fiction story but which does not exist in the universe as we know it. For example, a hull material that gets stronger by absorbing and converting heat and pressure into energy in the film The Core (2003) was nicknamed unobtainium.. The same concept under different names can be seen in the anti-gravity material cavorite from H. G. Wells' 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon, as well as the super-strong material scrith from Larry Niven's novel Ringworld, which requires a tensile strength (i.e. chemical bonds) on the order of the force binding an atomic nucleus.
The term was used in James Cameron's 2009 movie Avatar, as a substance that was named (in the film's dialog) unobtanium (note the slightly different spelling). In the film, it was mined on the fictional moon Pandora and was a room-temperature superconductor; its engineering value allowed for viable superluminal space travel.
The term handwavium (suggesting handwaving) is another term for this hypothetical material, as are buzzwordium, impossibrium and hardtofindium.
The term eludium (also spelled with variants such as illudium) has been used to describe a material which has eluded attempts to develop it. 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.
Another largely synonymous term is wishalloy, 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.
- List of fictional elements, materials, isotopes and subatomic particles
- Materials science in science fiction
- Dysprosium, a real element whose name means "hard to get".
- "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.
- Relatively large amounts of titanium are used in aircraft such as the F-15, F-18, and F-22 fighters and the B-1 bomber.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dean, Edwin B. (1989). "Parametric cost analysis: a design function". American Association of Cost Engineers 33rd Annual Meeting. 25. p. 28. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.45.5018.
- "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
- Jones, Richard (2010-01-10). "EXCLUSIVE: Inside China's secret toxic unobtainium mine". Mail Online. Retrieved 2010-06-04.
The rare-earths blasted out of rocks here [ Baiyun Obo ] feed more than 77 per cent of global demand... 'Dysprosium, for instance, allows systems to work under extreme conditions,' he explained. 'The US military doesn't want to buy it on the open market. They need a guaranteed supply and it's becoming a problem.
- 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.
- 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'
- "Unobtainium Supply Co. - When it's NLA, who do you call?". www.unobtainiumsupply.com. Retrieved 2010-06-04.
If you've been desperately searching for a part for your classic or vintage Ferrari, and have been hearing "IT'S NO LONGER AVAILABLE", or "IT CAN'T BE FIXED"
- "Parts "unobtainium" for sale - Rare auto and motorcycle parts". www.califspeed.com. Archived from the original on 2010-05-24. Retrieved 2010-06-04.
- 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"". Lunar and Planetary Institute: 57. Bibcode:1992lbsa.conf...55A. Cite journal requires
- "Wanted: unobtainium Going Up? Private Group Begins Work on Space Elevator". Archived from the original on 2010-04-06. Retrieved 2010-05-19.
- "Unobtainium". World Wide Words.
- Ebert, Roger (October 2004). Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2005. Andrews McMeel Publishing. pp. 140. ISBN 9780740747427.
- This property of Unobtanium is stated in movie guides, rather than in the film. 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 0-06-189675-6.
- Lang, Anouk (October 2010). "'The Status is Not Quo!': Pursuing Resolution in Web-Disseminated Serial Narrative". Narrative. 18 (3): 367–381. doi:10.1353/nar.2010.0002.
... Joss Whedon's work is such that there is an invented term—'phlebotinum'—which he and other writers employ when talking about devices they use to move the plot on which are incidental to the action.
- "Applied Phlebotinum". TV Tropes. Retrieved 2019-04-14.
Phlebotinum is the versatile substance that may be rubbed on anything to cause an effect needed by a plot. Examples include but are not limited to: nanotechnology, magic crystal emanations, pixie dust, and Green Rocks. In essence, it is plot fuel. Without it, the story would grind to an abrupt halt. It's the science that powers the FTL drive on the starship so the characters can get somewhere, it's the magic that hatches the Egg MacGuffin so the protagonist can save an endangered species, it's the strange things unknown to science or magic that do basically anything except those limits and dangers required by the plot. The reader does not know how Phlebotinum would work and the creators hope nobody cares.
- Heppenheimer, Thomas A. (1999). "NASA SP-4221: The Space Shuttle Decision – NASA's Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle". Chapter 8
- "Experts Warn of Impending Phosphorus Crisis", by Hilmar Schmundt, Spiegel, 21 April 2010
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