Nothing drives a science fiction plot along like throwing in a good fictional element or chemical compound or two. And while some purists may decry this as “plot resolution by techno-babble,” a well-crafted fictional element can enhance a created universe and serve as a way to give characters real-world limitations. Every superhero has got to have a strength or weakness, right? Think of Dune, where the galactic economy is linked to the power of the Spice. In the recent Avengers movie, Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit was formerly powered by palladium (a real element), to be replaced by an unnamed fictional one in Iron Man 2. Following is a look at 10 memorable substances from the worlds of superheroes and science fiction.
In the 2009 blockbuster film Avatar, unobtanium is vital to future technology, and the richest deposit of it lies on the moon Pandora, directly beneath the Na’vi’s gathering place and center of intelligence known as the Hometree. Unobtanium in Avatar serves as a metaphor for any precious substance that drives two parties into conflict. In fact, the very name is a play on the word unobtainium, a term for any substance or element difficult to manufacture or not yet discovered. The “Unob-“ prefix along with the “Uu” abbreviation has been lent to many as-yet undiscovered elements on the path to the “island of stability” that’s been theorized to exist around atomic number 120.
This is a fictional element in the World of Warcraft. Khorium ore is often found along with deposits of Adamantium (no relationship to the entry below) and is highly valued by players for currency, engineering, etc. In fact, there are several websites dedicated to helping players find and mine this fictional mineral in the game.
This is the crucial fuel used to power their “faster-than-light” (FTL) drives in the Battlestar Galactica series. Tylium appears in both the original and re-imagined series with only a slight pronunciation tweak. Disputes with workers’ rights aboard tylium mining ships fuel tensions in several episodes of the new series, and in one pivotal episode, the Galactica, running low on fuel, must defeat a Cylon task force sitting on top of a tylium mine on an asteroid.
7. Red Matter
The Star Trek franchise has probably spawned more fictional elements than any other, including the famous dilithium crystals used to power their ships. In the most recent 2009 film, an aging Spock uses Red Matter in an attempt to halt a supernova explosion that threatens the Romulan home world. Presumably, “Red Matter” is something akin to an alternate form of baryonic, or “normal” matter, or the familiar stuff that’s made of protons, neutrons, etc. Such exotic forms of matter are in fact theorized, such as “strange,” or “mirror matter,” though none would have the same attributes described in the film.
In the Marvel Comics universe, adamantium is most famously known as the fictional element bonded to Wolverine’s (of the X-Men) skeleton and claws. Adamantium is nearly indestructible, and must be molded after casting it from a resin within an eight-minute time period. Adamantium resembles the real-world element titanium in appearance, and is occasionally described as magnetic. Adamantium first appeared as part of the villainous Ultron’s shell in the Avengers back in 1969, and the villain Magneto has also incorporated use of adamantium on occasion as well.
This is the fictional element that comprises Captain America’s famous shield. Lightweight and nearly indestructible, vibranium can absorb sound waves and is often presented as being of extraterrestrial origin. In the Marvel Comics universe, vibranium was first isolated accidentally by Dr. Myron MacLain in the 1940s. Vibranium was incorporated into Captain America’s shield, and MacLain also later discovered adamantium (see No. 6 above) while trying to replicate the accident. Vibranium also crops up on the tips of Hawkeye’s arrows and Black Panther wears a uniform with vibranium mesh woven into it.
This fictional element was central to the plot of the 1980 film and 1976 novel by Clive Cussler of the same name entitled Raise the Titanic! Byzanium is radioactive and extremely rare and required as a power source to the fictional Pentagon’s top secret Sicilian Project. When it becomes apparent that the Soviets have procured their own supply, a program called Meta Section sends a team to locate and salvage a rumored source; a stockpile of byzanium that went down with the RMS Titanic in 1912.
In the 1990 action thriller Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger realizes that he is not an ordinary construction worker on Earth but part of an underground revolutionary movement on the planet Mars. The tensions between Earth and the Martian colonists revolve around the mining of the fictional element turbidium. On Mars, turbidium is used to extract oxygen sequestered under the Martian surface and make Mars habitable. On Earth, turbidium is being used by the military establishment to construct weapons and armor.
This fictional element first appears in the 1980 film Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back. Carbonite is a cryonic (i.e. low temperature) material used in tibanna gas mining on Cloud City. Darth Vader and Boba Fett procure its use to freeze Captain Han Solo for his journey to Jabba the Hutt, and then later Vader attempts to use it on Luke Skywalker to bring him before the Emperor. The concept of freezing individuals for extended periods of time has been a common plot device in science fiction, mostly as a way to cover long space voyages. This was also depicted in the films Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. By the way, for $200,000, the Alcor Foundation of California will preserve a frozen human body, presumably until methods of “recovery” can be found by future technology.
How could kryptonite not be No. 1? Kryptonite comes from the shattered radioactive remains of Superman’s home world, Krypton, and arrives on Earth as meteorites. OK, interstellar meteorites are a stretch, but did you know that very early 1930s comics assumed that Krypton was in our own solar system? In fact, interplanetary meteorites from Mars have been identified on Earth such as the famous Alan Hills 84001 meteorite. As a character, Superman has evolved over the years; in fact, the 1930s Superman didn’t even fly, but instead “leaped tall buildings in a single bound.” Kryptonite was added into the Superman mythos in the 1940s, and over the years, has branched out from the familiar green variety to red, blue, gold, and more, each with its own specific effect. The premise of the chemistry of kryptonite is a bit shaky; the real world gas of krypton is a noble element and therefore an “–ite” suffix (suggesting an oxidation state) would not be possible. That didn’t stop researchers in 2007 however, from jokingly referring to a form of sodium-lithium-boron-silicate-hydroxide (the stuff of Lex Luthor’s dreams in Superman Returns) as kryptonite.