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Fictional Materials

April 21, 2016

Some readers of this blog must have read the title as "frictional" materials, since that would have been an expected topic. I've written about friction, and the science of friction (tribology), in some previous articles (Tribology, April 27, 2015, Van der Waals Friction, August 12, 2013, and Friction, February 1, 2012. This article is about unusual materials appearing in fiction; and, there are quite a few, as this Wikipedia list demonstrates. I've winnowed my selections quite a bit, since it appears that fantasy authors prefer to have their dragons drink from lakes of magical liquids that have no scientific substance.

Dragon from the flag of WalesThe dragon from the flag of Wales.

Wales is considered as the likely home of King Arthur, noted for slaying all sorts of monsters, including dragons.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Most engineers are familiar with the fictional material, unobtainium, whose name derives from "unobtainable" and the "-ium" suffix used in naming 81 of the 118 chemical elements.[1] Unobtainium is the material that allows the success of your design, but you can't get it because there's no known material with the desired properties, or the required material is too expensive or it's still in development. The most common unobtainium is an aerospace material having high strength and resistance to creep, oxidation, and corrosion, at very high temperature.

The premise of Star Trek is the ability of faster-than-light travel; and that, in turn, is enabled by the fictional material, dilithium. Crystals of dilithium, a rare mineral found on just a few planets, enables the mixing of matter and antimatter for production of energy. Unfortunately, the writers imagined that dilithium (Dt) was element 87 in the periodic table, which is actually francium, an extremely reactive and radioactive element having a half-life of just 22 minutes. A better choice would have been an undiscovered element of high atomic number on a supposed "island of stability."

Transparent Aluminum
The fourth Star Trek Movie, "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," directed by Leonard Nimoy (March 26, 1931 - February 27, 2015), was very nearly a comedy. In one memorable scene, ship's engineer, Scotty, played by James Doohan (March 3, 1920 - July 20, 2005), reveals the structure of "transparent aluminum" to a 20th century scientist.

Aluminum, of course, is not transparent, so transparent aluminum would be a transparent compound of aluminum, such as aluminum oxynitride or the sapphire crystalline form of aluminum oxide, which is commonly used as a watch crystal. I wrote about these compounds in a previous article (Transparent Aluminum, June 4, 2015).

Trigonal crystal structure of sapphire (corundum)The arrangement of atoms in a unit cell of sapphire.

Sapphire has trigonal crystal structure, represented by the hexagonal cell shown.

The space group is designated R3c

(Illustration by the author using Inkscape.)

Adamantium, sometimes called adamant or adamantine, is an extremely hard material, in the same class as diamond. For some reason, the gates of hell are supposedly made of this material. While John Milton writes about this in Paradise Lost, his source would have been Virgil's description of the gates of Tartarus in the Aeneid.

Respicit Aeneas subito, et sub rupe sinistra moenia lata videt, triplici circumdata muro, quae rapidus flammis ambit torrentibus amnis, Tartareus Phlegethon, torquetque sonantia saxa. Porta adversa ingens, solidoque adamante columnae, vis ut nulla virum, non ipsi exscindere bello caelicolae valeant.[2]
Aeneas straightway by the leftward cliff beheld a spreading rampart, high begirt with triple wall, and circling round it ran a raging river of swift floods of flame, infernal Phlegethon, which whirls along loud-thundering rocks. A mighty gate is there columned in adamant; no human power, nor even the gods, against this gate prevail.[2]

Krell metal
The plot of the movie Forbidden Planet concerns an expedition to Altair IV, the fourth planet of the star Altair.[3] This planet was once populated by the Krell, an extinct race that left behind many artifacts, including many made from Krell Metal, a nearly indestructible alloy. From the screenplay, it appears that Krell Metal is much stronger than adamantium. Forbidden Planet has been compared to Shakespeare's The Tempest, with the part of Caliban played by Robbie the Robot.

Cavorite is an anti-gravity material appearing in "The First Men in the Moon," a 1901 novel by H. G. Wells. While this appears at first fantastic, the gravitational properties of antimatter are still unknown. This material enables a voyage to the Moon in a spherical spaceship having movable sheets of cavorite to allow steered propulsion. While the Selenite creatures found there are interesting, my favorite lunar inhabitants are the Cat-Women of the Moon.[4]

ice-nine, not to be confused with the actual ice-IX phase of water, is a fictional material in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Cat's Cradle. Unlike Vonnegut's ice-nine, ice-IX only exists below 140 kelvin at pressures from 200 - 400 MPa. Vonnegut's phase of water ice has the dangerous property that it will spontaneously crystallize water into ice-nine under normal temperatures and pressures. There's a problem, however, that ice-nine will only melt at 45.8 degrees Celsius, slightly above Earth ambient.

Ice-nine eventually leads to the solidification of all the world's water, and destruction of life on Earth. Vonnegut, who worked for a time in the public relations office at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, said that the ice-nine idea came from Nobel Chemistry Laureate, Irving Langmuir of GE's research laboratory. Langmuir apparently pitched the idea of an ice that's solid at room temperature to H.G. Wells, who had visited the laboratory. Langmuir and Wells never published anything about ice-nine; and, when they had both died, Vonnegut decided to use the idea himself. He modeled the ice-nine inventor, Dr. Felix Hoenikker, on Langmuir.

Left to right, Willis R. Whitney, Irving Langmuir, and Guglielmo MarconiLeft to right, Willis R. Whitney, Director of the GE research laboratory, Irving Langmuir, and Guglielmo Marconi, August, 1922.

They're looking at a recently developed 20 kilowatt triode vacuum tube.

Both Langmuir and Marconi were Nobel Laureates, Langmuir in chemistry and Marconi in physics.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Administratium, sometimes known as bureaucratium, is a material with a supposed negative half-life; that is, its quantity becomes greater with time. This reminds me of the committee members in charge of "Policies and Procedures" at my former employer. At one point, they decided that they needed to write a policy and procedure on writing policies and procedures. Administratium is the elementary particle from which bureaucratic systems are made.

Kryptonite is a mineral containing some radioactive element from Krypton, the home planet of Superman. The explosion of Krypton sent pieces of kryptonite Earthward, and it depletes Superman's strength when he comes near it. Kryptonite has entered popular culture as a reference to anything that weakens a person, the most recent example being in Shut Up and Dance, a 2014 song by the American music group, Walk the Moon, where they sing, "We were victims of the night, the chemical, physical, kryptonite..."

Scientists from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences have predicted the existence of KrO, a compound of the noble gas, krypton, with oxygen.[5-6] This kryptoxide, when crystallized, could be called kryptonite. In any case, such a name was enough to encourage me to read their paper.

I can remember while taking high school chemistry that my teacher was very excited about the discovery of xenon tetrafluoride (XeF4). Such a discovery was significant, since the noble gases were always thought by chemists as being inert and incapable of forming compounds. Today, quite a few noble gas compounds have been synthesized under high pressure conditions.

The Polish scientists did a thermodynamic calculation of the stability of compounds of krypton and oxygen for Kr:O ratios of 1:1, 1:2, 1:3 and 1:4 for pressures from 10-500 GPa.[5] They discovered that around 300 GPa the monoxide, KrO, should form in two stable configurations, as shown in the figure.[5] In these crystals, atoms of oxygen link atoms of krypton in polymer-like chains, and the solids are predicted to behave electrically as semiconductors.[6]

Two crystal forms of krypton monoxideTwo crystal forms of krypton monoxide, KrO. The left, zig-zag form is more stable than the right, chain form. The larger, blue atoms are Kr, with oxygen colored red.

(Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences image.)

Such high pressures are accessible through use of diamond anvil cells, so KrO can be synthesized in the laboratory, and that might be the only place it could be found. Says Patryk Zaleski-Ejgierd, one of the study authors,
"Our krypton monoxide, KrO, probably does not exist in nature. According to current knowledge, deep in the interiors of planets, that is, the only place where there is sufficient pressure for its synthesis, oxygen does not exist, nor even more so, does krypton."[6]

The research team found another, less stable compound, krypton tetroxide (KrO4), which should be metallic. It would form only above 340 million atmospheres.[6]

Enthaly of formation for two KrO phases as a function of pressureEnthalpy of formation for two KrO phases as a function of pressure.

The zig-zag form is stable at a slightly lower pressure (285 GPa).

(Fig. 2 of ref. 5, simplified, Creative Commons licensed.)


  1. I was surprised at how many there are. The calculation is easy to do in LibreOffice, my preferred spreadsheet program. If the list of element names is in column A, you can sum column B containing this formula: =IF(ISNUMBER(SEARCH("ium",A1)),1,0).
  2. P. Vergillius Maro, "Aeneid," book VI, ll. 548-554, via the Perseus Digital Library. Latin from J. B. Greenough, "Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics," Ginn & Co. (Boston, 1900). English translation from Vergil, "Aeneid," Theodore C. Williams. trans., Houghton Mifflin Co. (Boston, 1910).
  3. Forbidden Planet (1956, Fred M. Wilcox, Director) on the Internet Movie Database.
  4. Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, Arthur Hilton, Director) on the Internet Movie Database. This film is notable for the moonscapes by Chesley Bonestell.
  5. Patryk Zaleski-Ejgierd and Pawel M. Lata, "Krypton oxides under pressure," Scientific Reports, vol. 6 (2016), Article no. 18938 doi:10.1038/srep18938. This is an open access publication with a PDF file available here.
  6. Superman can start worrying -- we've got the formula for (almost) kryptonite!, Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences Press Release, March 2, 2016.

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