From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Unobtainium is a humorous term that refers to an extremely rare, costly, or physically impossible material needed to fulfill a given design for a given application. The name is a blend derived from unobtainable + ium (the suffix for a number of elements). Variations include unobtanium and unattainium, with the same meaning. It is sometimes referred to as element 404, after the HTTP 404 Not Found error.

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 would be light, strong at high temperatures, and resistant to radiation damage.

The name unobtainium also closely resembles the systematic element name for undiscovered elements that have an atomic number of 100-199. Like unobtainium, these all have 5 syllable names beginning with "un" and ending in "ium". The term was, however, in use long before the IUPAC systematic names.

Another largely synonymous term includes wishalloy,[1] although the sense is often subtly different in that a wishalloy usually doesn't exist at all, whereas unobtainium may merely be unavailable. The term handwavium usually is used to indicate a material that probably cannot even in principle be real.


[edit] Aerospace and electronics

Engineers have long (since at least the 1950s[2]) used the term unobtainium when referring to unusual or costly materials, or when theoretically considering a material perfect for their needs in all respects save that it doesn't exist. By the 1990s, the term was widely used, including formal engineering papers such as Towards unobtainium [new composite materials for space applications]. [3]

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

Unobtainium is also used for materials that are practical and really exist, but are difficult to get. For example, during the development and service period of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, engineers working for Lockheed Corporation at the Skunk Works used the term unobtainium as a dysphemism for titanium. This was not because of the radical decision to use the untried new material, but because at the time the Soviets were cornering the market in this material and were careful not to allow the American military to get hold of it.[4] Since the advent of the FFC Cambridge process in 1996, titanium is more readily obtained.[5]

Similarly, in maintaining old equipment (electronic and other) unobtainium is often used to refer to replacement parts that are no longer made (e.g. many parts for reel-to-reel audio recorders used to play back archive tapes for digitization). Uncommon, or rare, vacuum tubes are often said to be made of "unobtainium" when they cost more than the equipment they are fitted to (especially true of certain tubes, such as the 1L6, used exclusively in American battery powered shortwave radios).

[edit] Science fiction

The term has been used in science fiction for materials that have incredibly strong properties. For example scrith, the fictional material forming the foundation of the Ringworld in Larry Niven's novel of the same name, requires a tensile strength on the order of the forces binding an atomic nucleus together. Since no such material is thought to be possible, a ring world is therefore said to be built out of unobtainium. Unobtainium can be used in a disparaging context (e.g., "that idea is silly; you'd need unobtainium wires to hold the planet up!") or a hypothetical one ("If one were to build an unobtainium shell around a black hole's event horizon, what would happen to the material piling up on it?") The term handwavium (suggesting handwaving) is another term for this hypothetical material, as are "buzzwordium" and "flangium" (from "to flange" meaning to make up something improbable, especially in fiction or interactive entertainment such as larp). In the movie The Core, one of the characters invented a material to build the hull of the craft that dug to the Earth's core — he explicitly dubbed this material unobtainium (due to its real name having 37 syllables). Unobtainium also is mentioned as being used in a probability-field weapon in the Uplift Saga by David Brin. The term could also be applied to any substance that is necessary for the plot to work but does not exist in the universe as we know it, such as cavorite and dilithium. In Warner Brothers cartoons, Marvin the Martian attempts to destroy the earth using a device containing illudium.

[edit] Late-contemporary usage

More recently "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 or limited availability.[6][7][8] It usually refers to a very high-end and desirable product, e.g. in the mountain biking community, "These titanium hubs are unobtainium, man!", or a first-time indie film director saying that a sound stage to film in would be unobtainium.

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 do seem to have met 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 at this time.

Oakley, Inc. has trademarked the word Unobtainium to refer to a rubber compound used on the frames of their sunglasses. This compound is designed to grip the nose and temples when it becomes wet with perspiration. Due to widespread prior use of the term, US trademark laws are unlikely to protect Oakley's claim on the word outside of the eyewear/clothing industry. Unobtainium is mentioned as a component of Draggin Jeans' [9] motorcycle jeans, as is Unobtanium (sic).

Unobtainium is also the name of an intense, sparkly color of blue glass, produced by Northstar Glass.

[edit] Automotive enthusiasts

In the world of odd-ball and rare auto restoration, and or maintenance, the term Unobtainium is used to describe any part that is almost impossible to obtain. For example, if one needed a rear lamp bezel for a 1929 Viking automobile, the needed part would be described as being made from pure Unobtainium. This term states the extreme rareness of a part versus a merely hard to obtain part that may be referred to as being made from Junkyardium.

The term is also used in motorsports to refer to exotic metals not permitted in racing series.

[edit] See also

[edit] References and footnotes

  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Misra; Mohan (Nov-Dec 1990). "Towards unobtainium [new composite materials for space applications]". Aerospace Composites and Materials 2: 29–32. 
  4. ^ Titanium was required because of the high temperatures that the SR-71 airframe reached. Although titanium alloys have a strength/weight ratio which is much the same as aluminum alloys at room temperature, titanium maintains much of its strength at 600°C whereas aluminum weakens dramatically at this temperature. In spite of efforts by the Soviet Union to prevent it, a large quantity of titanium somehow found its way to the United States after an apparently innocent European company bought a considerable quantity. The company was in fact a front set up for this very purpose. 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.
  5. ^ Large deposits of titanium dioxide, usually in the form of sand, exist in places such as Florida and are mined there. By heating titanium dioxide with metallic sodium or potassium in an inert atmosphere (e.g. argon), metallic titanium is obtained.
  6. ^ "Blanco Suave: The Ringer". 
  7. ^ "Victorian Street Motard Riders Forum". 
  8. ^ "'s Forum Archives - Singlespeed". 
  9. ^ "Draggin Jeans Kevlar Lined Cothing". 

[edit] External links

Personal tools