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From unobtain(able) +‎ -ium (suffix creating scientific- or humorous-sounding fictional substance names), modelled after uranium[1] and titanium.



unobtainium (plural unobtainiums) (humorous)

  1. A fictional material or component which, if it existed, would enable one to easily solve a hard problem.
    Synonym: handwavium
    • 1962, Charles N. Kelber, “Research Reactors”, in Earl W. Phelan, editor, Current Trends in Nuclear Power: A Symposium Sponsored by the University of Arizona in Cooperation with Argonne National Laboratory: Tucson, Arizona, February 26 – March 12, 1962, Argonne, Ill.: Argonne National Laboratory, OCLC 4732239, page 17, column 2:
      Thus the invention of high temperature fuels will enable us to consider cores which are radiation cooled; such cores would be surrounded by large tanks (cooled by water) which in turn would be penetrated by beam holes. The beam holes themselves would probably have to be made of "unobtanium". (This "unobtanium" is a word coined at Atomics International to describe the material needed to make reactor projects feasible.) In between the radiation cooled reactors and the water cooled reactors is a regime suitable for liquid metal (including boiling liquid) cooled reactors. Once again "unobtanium" is needed.
    • [1978 September, Lynn C. Rogers; Ahid D. Nashif, “Computerized Processing and Empirical Processing of Viscoelastic Material Property Data and Preliminary Constrained Layer Damping Treatment Design”, in The Shock and Vibration Bulletin (Bulletin; 48, part 2 (Isolation and Damping, Impact, Blast)), Washington, D.C.: The Shock and Vibration Information Center, Naval Research Laboratory, OCLC 660876214, page 26, column 2:
      In order to illustrate some of the features of data processing under ideal conditions, a set of simulated data was generated and is presented in the last four columns of Table II. The hypothetical material is called Unobtainium.]
    • 1987, Air Force Magazine[1], page 58:
      The names of materials presently used in aerospace applications are familiar: magnesium, aluminum, titanium, and so on. Propulsion scientists call the ideal material for turbine engines "Unobtainium," because it does not exist.
    • 1999, T[homas] A. Heppenheimer, “A Shuttle to Fit the Budget”, in The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA’s Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle (The NASA History Series; NASA SP-4221), Washington, D.C.: Office of Policy and Plans, NASA History Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, OCLC 1109173431, page 331:
      As early as 1969, during the initial Phase A studies, Lockheed had taken the initiative in proposing a two-stage fully-reusable design with both stages built of aluminum and using silica tiles for thermal protection. [...] Though that company indeed was in the forefront in developing such tiles, they were items for laboratory research. A design that specified their use had no more intrinsic credibility than one that proposed to use the miracle metals Unobtanium and Wishalloy.
    • 2002 February, Kevin Cameron, “Supercharged: It’s Good to B-King”, in Cycle World, volume 41, number 2, New York, N.Y.: Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, ISSN 0011-4286, OCLC 920424477, page 38, column 2:
      This is not a Tom Tomorrow Bike, made of NASA unobtainiums and employing warp drives that have yet to be invented. It could be built as soon as the production technology is put on the line and powered-up, because all the vehicle technology is proven, off-the-shelf stuff.
  2. An especially rare material or component that is outrageously expensive or otherwise almost impossible to get hold of.
    • 1956, Aerospace[2], volume 11-12:
      The vacuum furnace has been greatly improved and today we are melting titanium, zirconium, high alloy steels and other materials which are remarkably free of impurities and possess improved properties. These high performance metals are used in turbojet engines, missiles and atomic reactors. […] We call it "unobtainium."
    • 1998, Business Week[3], page 123:
      Bikes made of titanium, once known as "unobtainium" because of its high price, are down from the stratosphere.
    • 2008 May 20, Elaine Rhodes; Paul A. Spalitta, “Troubleshooting”, in Developing Printed Circuit Assemblies: From Specifications to Mass Production, [Morrisville, N.C.]: Lulu, →ISBN, page 46:
      Sometimes parts turn out to be made of "unobtainium," that magic element which is simply unobtainable.
    • 2011, Kevin Gosselin, chapter 27, in Hunt for the Blower Bentley, London: MX Publishing, →ISBN:
      It was this blend of genuine, authentic Bentley parts with his recreations of the unobtanium bits that had Patrick thinking that this ruse would actually work.
    • 2012, Ellen Grabiner, “Did You See That?”, in Donald E. Palumbo and C. W. Sullivan III, editors, I See You: The Shifting Paradigms of James Cameron’s Avatar (Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy; 34), Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, →ISBN, page 22:
      We might recognize, here, the blind pursuit of our own unobtaniums and the ways in which our ancestors forged ahead without care for the consequences of their actions to native peoples or to their environs.
    • 2013 November 5, Mark Halperin; John Heilemann, “Intervention”, in Double Down: Game Change 2012, New York, N.Y.: Penguin Press, →ISBN; republished as Double Down: The Dramatic Inside Account of the 2012 Presidential Election, London: W. H. Allen, 2014, →ISBN, page 429:
      For [Jeffrey] Katzenberg, having two presidents in his concert-hall-size living room was a fitting reward: no Democratic buck-raker had raised more dough in 2012. Katzenberg pitched the lunch to invitees as a once-in-a-lifetime experience—what he called "unobtainium."
    • 2017 March, Joe Quirk; with Patri Friedman, “Fuel: The Ocean is a Solar Panel”, in Seasteading: How Floating Nations will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians, New York, N.Y.: Free Press, →ISBN, part II (Environment), page 159:
      These precious [rare earth] minerals are not actually rare, just so infernally difficult to sift from the earth without destroying the environment and poisoning your workers that the minerals are known in the mining industry as "unobtainiums."
    • 2017 April, Cory Doctorow, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor, Walkaway: A Novel, New York, N.Y.: Tor Books, →ISBN, section v, pages 186–187:
      People who think about space end up thinking about bullshit like Star Wars and Star Trek. [...] They have to invent unobtaniums, magic crystals that, for some reason, can't just be printed out by their transporter beams, or there's no story.
  3. A high technology component that is extremely expensive.
    • 2015 August 10, Alan Cohen, “Preliminary Planning: Can This be a Success?”, in Mike Loukides and Meghan Blanchette, editors, Prototype to Product: A Practical Guide for Getting to Market, Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly Media, →ISBN, page 110:
      [D]oes our device require any technologies that we're not likely to be able to develop, buy, or otherwise obtain? This unobtainable content is sometimes called unobtanium, and can take various forms: [...] Things that exist, but don't exist for us. If Acer needs a beautiful custom 15″ LCD panel that costs less than $50, they can get it, because they'll buy millions and millions of them. But for the vast majority of us, asking an LCD panel vendor for such a thing will yield little more than a chuckle.

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