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Airships are awesome, but making them realistic while retaining the awesome factor is hard due to how relatively little weight they can realistically carry.

I was thinking about ways to mitigate that and came to the idea of introducing some Unobtanium-like mineral that produces lift on its own, meaning it has negative mass. Maybe it's magical, maybe it's just an exotic form of matter, but there are deposits of it here and there in the rocks and people discovered its properties.

It is relatively rare (does not occurs in dense enough veins to cause Avatar-like floating islands) but spread out evenly, with me also thinking that it might make it easier to explain certain quirks about the layout of the world (It can help to keep massive vertical cliffs of the setting from crumbling and eroding away).

So people would employ the material in the hydrogen-filled airships to greatly reduce their weight. Now though I imagine such mineral would find its use in other fields of the industry probably, which has risks of transforming the society and technologies in unpredictable ways, making them less "victorian" and "steampunk", which would be an unwanted side effect of the solution.

How can I prevent the mineral from being useful outside of airship construction, or at least not useful enough to have a significant impact on the civilization and technology?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 17 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ @DarthBiomech Looks like at this point we could do with some more details about what the things were you didn't want it to do. Seems like the "positive inertial mass, negative gravitational mass"/"positive mass, negative weight" version gets rid of the perpetual motion. I don't know what other things you were concerned about, if any. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    May 17 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ Helium airships, less efficient than hydrogen ones, are still good enough for cargo carrying purposes that they may make a modern comeback. What exactly defines the "awesome factor" you're trying to preserve? How much cargo/people/weapons do you want to cram onto them? As an aside, I would be much more excited to read about the setting where you let the unobtanium have crazy effects on the culture, instead of yet another story in an established genre. $\endgroup$
    – Harabeck
    May 17 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ How could abusing this may make the society non-Victorian? $\endgroup$
    – Xwtek
    May 18 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps by some hand-wavery, the mineral only provides lift when completely surrounded by hydrogen? $\endgroup$ May 18 at 12:13

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A solution could be to make this material unstable. It's possible that this material requires special containment when it's grouped together, rather than spread through the ground. This could make it more difficult for use in things such as shipping containers, heavy weaponry, small-scale vehicles, etc., if the containment isn't something that would be practical to put on a box or a machine gun.

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    $\begingroup$ It gave me an idea - the element's stable as an ore, unstable when refined, but the effect is much stronger and can be stabilized by being submerged in a hydrogen atmosphere. The only place you'd want an atmosphere of flammable gas is in a zeppelin (I don't think you can get helium without natural gas deposits anyway), so I think that's a great way to limit the usage! $\endgroup$ May 15 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ I'm glad I could help! $\endgroup$
    – Mrpenguin
    May 15 at 19:32
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It only works at high concentrations

Like fission, you need a minimum amount of this material for it to generate lift power.
Gather a cube meter of this material and it would barely lift itself; but gather one thoudans cube meters of it and it will be able to lift some kilograms, and so on, following some exponential rule, so that when you have the same volume as a Zeppelin, you can lift some thousand tons of material.

Since you need a big volume of it to generate a decent lift, it is useful only for some not-size-constrained purposes, such as big airships, but would have otherwise limited uses for basically all other purposes.

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    $\begingroup$ But if you try and build your airships too big, they start pushing themselves apart as you build them. So you can't build megaships. $\endgroup$ May 16 at 23:24
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When the material is “grounded”, it doesn’t give lift. They haven’t been able to figure out if it is some kind of static charge or a magic connection to the earth, but if it is connected to the ground by some sort of solid matter, the anti gravity effect doesn’t appear.

Edit: The grounding effect isn’t immediate. It takes several hours to lose all lift, so you can dock briefly. It also take some time for the effect to “charge”, so you do need the full airship structure to initially lift some of the material, then you can take on more of it, until you reach the desired lift strength. The “charge” time also prevents use as projectiles or the like.

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Something similar happened in the real world. By the end of the 19th century people were drinking uranium-enriched water as a health elixir, because it would supposedly kill harmful microbes in your body (never mind it kills the useful ones such as your gut flora as well, before also killing you).

Marie Curie discovered a lot of the physics behind radioactivity but she only found out about the poisoning when it had already happened to her and her husband. Prior to that she would carry around pieces of radioactive material to show to other people, because the glow was beautiful.

Even as recently as the 1980's... Two scrap thieves in Brazil stole some Cesium-137 dust from an abandoned hospital. One of them used it to make an impromptu glowing tattoo on his own stomach.

Industrially uranium could be so useful because it is very dense. It could make for a better shield against X and gamma rays than lead, if only it were not a source of radiation as well. It could maybe be used for construction too, but it would make for a very unpopular building.

Nowadays the only well known uses for uranium are power generation, material for tank armor and terrorism.


So take a page from uranium and make your own unobtanium radioactive. Make it even more so than uranium for a kick. Surely people won't wish to build everyday usage devices with it.

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    $\begingroup$ Doubt that people would want to use airships filled with the stuff too, though. But it's a nice idea, making it hazardous. $\endgroup$ May 15 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @darthbiomech zeppelins used to be filled with hydrogen. This caused some of the most spectacular explosions in history - and even without the explosive risk, if you enter a place filled with pure hydrogen gas your lungs will violently explode. Yet people travelled in airships all the time. As long as they were in a gondola, separated from the hazardous material, they felt safe enough. $\endgroup$ May 15 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ Additionally, for most of the time we knew that uranium existed but did not have the science to use it. Perhaps your unobtainium simply misses the scientific equipment to be utilized to it's full effect, or there might be additional features that make it suddenly not play as nice if you try to experiment with it beyond "I put this within this container to make it lighter". $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    May 15 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ @TheSquare-CubeLaw Airships never exploded, they burned up. Even then most airships rarely burned but crashed instead, often because the pilots had flown airships so much they thought the ships almost invulnerable and would keep flying in winds their ships weren't designed for. Airships are likely the most resiliant aircraft ever to fly across the earth, and had we continued developing them like we did our winged aircraft you can be assured that their safety would only have increased. For crying out loud it's the only aircraft that can survive and land after two run-ins with hits from AA fire. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    May 15 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @DarthBiomech: Radioactivity is nice because you can shield from it -- with sufficient plating. This is great because it means economy of scale. Having a -1 kg of unobtainium is fairly useless if the necessary plating to contain its radioactivity is 5 kg of iron: all you have is a big ball of iron weighing 4 kg. However, as your ball gets bigger the proportion of iron (the outer layer) vs unobtainium (core) shifts, until at some point you get a ball (or cylinder) with actual negative lift without skimping on the thickness of the plating. $\endgroup$ May 16 at 18:26
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Frameshift:

Your mineral has no antigravity properties. Rather, it is a nongravity item. Metal alloys containing a sufficient quantity of the mineral become unaffected by gravity. You build your airship out of such metal. The lifting comes from hydrogen or helium as normal, it's just your lifting capacity is available for cargo rather than using most of it to simply lift the airship itself.

You can use it to build other lightweight things but how often will that be important on the ground? Extra-light versions of many things exist on Earth, yet rarely see much use outside the sporting world because the improved performance normally isn't worth the cost.

I hike so I see some of this in action. Go to REI and you'll find titanium versions of some everyday items--but you're not going to find them in ordinary stores. The titanium versions are considerably more expensive than the household equivalents, only someone who really cares about weight (someone who is going to be carrying that item for many miles) will pay the premium.

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The material is sort of self limiting, in the sense that if too much is collected in the same place without enough mass to neutralize it will end up sending into space the hoarder.

This will be quickly realized as soon as someone starts to hoard it and disappears in the act, and the needed mass to ensure safety will be what prevents widespread usage.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not really get how that would restrict its industrial usage though? $\endgroup$ May 15 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ "Well, the Train Order said to pick up a full waggon of unobtanium at the smelter. But when we got there, there was no waggon set out for us to pick up. The Foreman claimed they had spotted the waggon in the right place just an hour before, but it wasn't there. Here's the photo to prove it." $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    May 15 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ The solution of "just package it in barrels that have enough ballast mass to weigh down the stored portion" sort of just asks for itself and doesn't look like a problem at all. Am I missing something in your answer? $\endgroup$ May 15 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @DarthBiomech From what I understand according to L.Dutch-Reinstate Monica if you packaged it in a barrel the problem is that it would convert to normal mass or disappear and then the ballast mass would just fall and be a nuisance. Maybe having an air ship helps you use only a little and keep it separated from itself. $\endgroup$
    – Idan
    May 15 at 20:23
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Decay properties:

Your unobtanium emits heat and decay particles as it decays. If one of these particles connects with another particle of unobtanium, it causes a decay reaction that emits heat and more decay particles.

Fortunately, your unobtanium converts to a gas when it gets warm. Deposits are found wherever volcanic activity allows the unobtanium to condense. So ores co-mingle with materials like gold.

As the unobtanium gas fills a balloon, the density of the material drops below the level where the decay particles cause an uncontrolled chain reaction. As long as the unobtanium is kept warm, it keeps the balloon floating. As it cools, perhaps it forms a precipitate (unobtanium carbide?) that falls(?) like snow in the balloon, condenses at the bottom (or condenses on the ceiling...), and (often) heats up as the decay accelerates.

The goal is to keep it from decaying, since it is too valuable to let it break down. it can't get incorporated easily into materials (except at levels where it is not very useful), and your air ships will need constantly burning steam engines to keep the stuff warm. All that steam power WILL allow your ships to have huge propellers, or possibly use steam rockets for propulsion (if a constant supply of water is available). They'll look less like the Hindenburg, more like the Titanic.

I think the bigger challenge is to get the airships back DOWN. Perhaps the material reacts with elements in the air as it cools, binding more and more mass as it reaches room temp and achieves neutral buoyancy. If so, the material is possibly harvested from the sea, as the volatilized unobtanium would settle to the ground and often float on water like amber. Perhaps it's effects increase the hotter it gets. Or maybe the airships are also hot air balloons, using heat for lift, and unobtanium for canceling the weight of the vessel.

Ammonia is a lifting gas that can be condensed, allowing descent by condensing the gas. It's not a strong lifting gas, so it's usefulness in airships is limited. But unobtanium does the heavy lifting, so your lifting gas mostly needs to allow going up and coming back down. Lighter lifting gasses are cheap enough that they could simply be vented or (for hydrogen) burned.

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It's a super-strong lattice, but it still needs to be evacuated to generate lift. In its natural state, it's soaked up with air, so it can't lift anything. To actually use it, you need to: find it and isolate it, as any impurities add weight; envelop it in material that doesn't allow the passage of air; actually remove the air.

You can just wrap raw vacuttice in leather, pump hydrogen through it, and it will lift for a couple of minutes, before air seeps back in. Unfortunately it turns out that the hydrogen is kinda expensive and it's cheaper to just hire a couple more warehouse haulers. Just driving hydrogen through it won't remove enough air. You need to go big.

Airship docks have specialized chambers that can "recharge" vacuttice pods by leaving them in hydrogen atmosphere for extended periods of time. Cheap pods need frequent replacements, expensive pods will power an airship for days or even months, and simply pumping hydrogen into the lifting body may even be able to keep them running indefinitely... and if you use an unusual type of pods or need to replace more than the port has in stock, you better have your own hydrogen chambers and/or expect downtime.

Whether vacuttice has actual anti-gravity properties, or simply acts as a physically plausible rigid vacuum remains a mystery. Atmospheric density measurements suggest they have to, but the general public remains skeptical...

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Maybe it is used in other applications, to allow impractical steampunk contraptions to work.

Often, in many steampunk works, there are massive mega-trains, giant steam-powered robots, and the similar such devices that would be completely impractical to build in real life with that level of technology.

Perhaps the mass-reduction effect of this unobtanium material would allow these sorts of constructions to function as well, similar to how it allows massive zeppelins to function. The difference between a massive zeppelin and a mega-train is perhaps in the ratio between the mass of the vehicle and the quantity of the unobtanium material used in its construction.

In very small amounts, perhaps it would even allow for steam-powered prosthetics or suits of power armor!

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Refining the Mineral Is Costly

One way that you can seriously restrict the applications of the mineral is by making it highly difficult to refine into a usable form. This in turn would mean that its applications would be limited to those that get the most bang for your buck, like using it to give additional lifts to airships which can transport both people and cargo in ways land and water based forms of transport cannot. No need to build a railroad through hazardous mountain ranges when you can just float over them and get from Point A to Point B in much less time.

The Lifting Properties Are Not Automatic

In order for the mineral to generate lift, it has to be subjected to some kind of effect. This could be changing its temperature, running an electrical current through it, or exposing it to a particular wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. On its own, the mineral just sits there and is actually quite useless. This would require airships to have some kind of complicated system in place to control the lifting properties of the mineral. One example of this kind of idea is in the Anime series Escaflowne. In that story setting, airships were built around these big rocks which have heating pipes connected with them. To raise the airships, they had to increase the temperature of the stones and if the heating system had a problem, the airships would start to sink toward the ground. You could go for something similar. (It'd also work as an allusion to how hot air balloons work by increasing the temperature of the air inside them.)

The Mineral Is Dangerous to Mine

If the mineral is highly toxic, then mining it will seriously limit how much of it can be acquired. If the miners require tons of protective gear to stay alive while they collect the mineral in its raw form, that's going to slow their work speed considerably. Another issue could be that, if its lifting properties are innate, then its applying a lifting force to the earth and stone around it. Thus, when its removed, that force is removed, which means you have a higher chance for tunnels collapsing. Alternatively, the mineral could be found alongside other toxic minerals, like how talc may be found alongside asbestos. Or the mineral could be volatile in its unrefined form, so there's a risk of it exploding or discharging electricity or something along those lines.

The Mineral Has No Other Applications

This mineral's unique lifting property is the only thing it has going for it. It's totally inert otherwise. It won't combine with other materials, the way different metals can be combined to make alloys, it's not very durable, so it can't be used to make things like structural supports, tools, or other useful things. It literally only has one application - making things float. If you place restrictions on how well it can do that, such as by requiring it be affected in a particular way, then you can keep it from becoming too overpowered quick effectively.

The Mineral Is a Little Too Good At Lifting Things

If the mineral is too good at making things float, like causing them to float so high that they can escape the planet's gravity, then the mineral has to be used in very conservative amounts. This could be why the airships use other kinds of lift, such as gas, in addition to the mineral. They need to be able to reduce the total lifting force for emergencies, so they use gasses that can be vented instead of relying entirely on the mineral. The mineral reduces how much gas is actually needed to get sufficient lift but is unable to provide enough lift to get the airship far off the ground on its own, but will ensure that the airship will never crash into the ground, either. Your airship is "unsinkable," in a sense, but also not in danger of leaving the atmosphere.

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It stinks.

Tanneries have nothing on the odor of your airship mineral. Brimstone is pleasant in comparison to the wretched greasy stench that radiates out from this stuff. The Bog of Eternal Stench is probably the first known source of this mineral. NOBODY wants to be around it. The very best place for your mineral is a thousand feet up and drifting away. The airship crews swear you can get used to it. The rest of the world disagrees.

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The material by itself doesn't have negative mass, but rather "gravitational frame lag", requiring large machinery to make it produce lift.

Specifically, the effect of gravity on this material "lags" behind it's physical position. For example, if you hold a chunk of unobtainium, it would appear to be a regular, if dense, chunk of ore, but if you flip it around, it briefly "falls" upwards before it re-normalizes to the new "down" direction. This allows the ore to exist because on geological time-scales, anything with negative mass would've long migrated to the surface and then flown off into space.

This material is used in airship construction by building long, massive cylinders out of it. When the cylinders are spun at just the right speed, the "lag" causes their average gravity to pull upwards, therefore producing lift. This means an airship equipped with these large spinning masses needs to burn a lot of energy into turning them, thus eliminating thermodynamics problems.

Additionally, the energy to spin to lift conversion ratio is so bad that when grounded, there is basically no application for these things as anywhere there's enough power to spin one fast enough to produce lift, it would be much more efficient to simply use an electric (or similar) motor to accomplish the same task. Eg, why build an unobtainium elevator when an electric one would only one tenth and be far more efficient.

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    $\begingroup$ you'd probably want a lot of smaller cylinders actually - that way you get waaaay more fine-grained control over thrust, and it doesn't put immense strain on whatever walls the dock may have (or tip the airship over) while it's spinning up (since, well, you could not only spin a bunch of small cylinders up way faster, but also you can spin every other one in the opposite direction to balance out the sideways forces) $\endgroup$
    – somebody
    May 17 at 21:23
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It generates lift, but is only economical in large quantities. Pick an arbitrary "break even" point. Let's say it takes 100 kg of unobtanium to provide 100 kg of lift. Beyond 100 kg, the lift increases, below 100 kg, the lift per kilo of mass decreases, so that to provide, for example, 1kg of lift takes 10 kg of unobtanium, 1 g of lift takes 1kg of unobtanium, and so on. But 1000 kg of unobtanium will lift 100,000 kg. This would make it useless for small scale applications, but invaluable for large scale applications such as airships. Depending on where you set the break-even point, it would be more or less economically viable for small scale work. At some point, you would reach a diminishing returns point where adding more unobtanium would generate less lift per kilogram, until you would have to add a prohibitively large amount to get a small amount of lift. The reasons for this would be left to the author to determine, but I put it out there as a way to control the usage of the resource.

The Hindenburg weight about 200,000 kg, so would take around 3000 kg of unobtanium to lift. 500,000 kg of mass would take 10,000 kg of Un, 600,000 would take 20,000, 1,000,000 kg would take, say 100,000 kg of Un. At that point, Un is providing only 10kg of lift per kilo.

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    $\begingroup$ I think i see what you might be thinking, but you might want to go over your figures. Can unobtainium in the amount of 1000Kg provide both only 1Kg lift and 100,000Kg lift at the same time? Welcome to worldbuilding, enjoy the site. $\endgroup$ May 17 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ And that's what I get for dashing of a reply in the last 15 minutes of lunch time. Edited to be more consistent. Thanks for the warm welcome, despite egregious boneheadedness :) $\endgroup$
    – BardMorgan
    May 17 at 21:37
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Just make it a negative-weight gas, so you have to fill the airship with it. It loses its negative-weight property if condensed to liquid or solid. This pretty effectively prevents any uses that don't involve giant balloons.

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  • $\begingroup$ Surprisingly ingenious! +1 for creative insight! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    May 17 at 23:52
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One word: volatility

I like some of the other answers but they get too deep into physics. This is a spin on the "too much makes it go up and up" answer:

A small amount of "unobtanium" in an area does nothing.

A medium amount of "unobtanium" in an area makes something buoyant.

A large amount (or "too much") in an area makes big boom.

The material interacts with itself in such a way that the interaction creates the "energy" for bouyancy... until it creates too much and a chain reaction occurs. Not enough material? Might as well be talcum powder... too much? might as well be C4. just enough? creates the means for floating ships.

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Option 1: Required significant refinement and is hard to handle

The mineral works "as advertised", but only when refined to 99.999% pure. This will increase the value and reduce the availability.

Also, once refined to the appropriate purity a volume of xxx (chose an amount that works for you) is so functional that it requires excessive procedures to handle safely (i.e. to keep it from flying away). Handling options might include: 1000lb gloves, massive containment (1000lb of steel) vessels.

To put it into operation, the airship is constructed, then weighed, then multiple xxx volumes are added until the airship achieves the appropriate buoyancy.

Option 2: Requires significant refinement and only works under 'high' voltage

As before, must be refined to 99.999% pure. This will increase the value and reduce the availability.

The lift is generated by applying a large electric current which requires a large, onboard dynamo (generator).

The size of the dynamo and the volume of fuel to operate the dynamo are the limiting factors. You might add, there are only steam engines to run the dynamo.

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You could just monopolize it. Have it be only obtained through an invention only a certain company has and without it, extraction of said mineral will make its properties decay severely so that only a company that uses it for spaceships and stuff related to it can only obtain and use it.

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Super strong carbon deposits

In your world, for whatever reason, there are some bacteria that deposit graphite, a special carbon weave that is incredibly strong for it's weight. It has electrical properties, which might actually be used in yoursteampunk setting, but mainly it would be light and strong. The bacteria just spread out and leave the carbon as a waste products, with some enzymes organising the carbon onto a graphite weave structure. The advantage of this is that people don't manufacture or mine it, but just have areas where a limited amount is made, limiting the overall supply.

There are several kind of these bacteria, depositing different kinds. Some are more useful than others. Some just have the weave, while others leave nanotubes, while yet others leave less well constructed weaves or the like. Because it's lightweight and strong it can be used in many industries, but mostly in a way that could advance tge steampunk tropes. Airships are a prime example where you want lightweight strong materials. Several layers can form the gasbag with a good weight reduction, while it can help suspension of the carriage among other things. The carriage can be made with much less metal, reducing the weight.

Conclusion

The overall advantage is the limited supply, making it difficult to expand to huge industrial sizes for everything. At least until the processes to make the material/understand bacteria and cultivate them is fully understood, which can take a long time. It would be used mostly where it makes most sense, one of which is air travel. It doesn't exclude to be used in other areas, but that can be advantageous for the steampunk trope. The potential for other industries and moving electricity efficiently can be a boon, not a detriment.

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Antimatter

It is an open problem in physics if antimatter is gravitationally attracted or repelled by matter. Most physicists expect that they are attracted, but there still could be that this is not the case. If antimatter is gravitationally repelled by matter, then this is what you're looking for.

Antimatter is very hard to be created in any sizeable quantity and still harder to be stored for long time. Also, large quantities of antimatter would be a really dangerous thing to handle.

So, imagine an apparatus that stores large quantities of antimatter in a way that the quantity of antimatter stored is significantly superior than the quantity of matter used in its storage compartment and that doesn't just annihilates and explodes in femtoseconds, but instead can store the antimatter safely for years. It would have a significantly negative weight and would be strongly repelled by Earth's gravity.

The apparatus is extremely complex, bulky, heavy (when its storage is empty), expensive, fragile and dangerous, but it enables your civilization to do something very important: It drastically reduces the cost and the fuel needs for launching stuff at the space! However, its shortcomings makes it be practically useless for anything other than that.

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  • $\begingroup$ Now the only thing left is to find a way for 1840-1900s science to handle said antimatter without either annihilating their cities or turning it into a bomb to annihilate the enemy's cities. $\endgroup$ May 16 at 23:18
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It only creates negative lift when an electrical current is run through it. Creating an electrical current at the technology level of your world requires an enormous steam turbine, with commensurate weight increases of water tanks, coal, crew. The only time this whole equation balances out to create useable lift is on an enormous airship!

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding, enjoy our tour and refer to the help center for guidance as to how we go about things. Nice (if brief) first post. $\endgroup$ May 17 at 5:59
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It is not just mined.

The mineral is transformed by an exotic interaction with high energy cosmic rays. Bringing it into space would be too expensive, so some very light, unmanned, airships will have to keep it for a time at a height of 20 thousands meters or more where cosmic rays are more intense before it can be used and the process is very slow.

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Use Cavorite

H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon introduces a reclusive physicist by the name of Cavor, who is working to develop an alloy that can shield against the effects of gravity. He successfully creates the material, dubbed Cavorite. In an early part of the story, a sheet of Cavorite is processed prematurely, and it causes the column of air above it to become weightless; which causes a powerful updraft as the non-weightless air applies enormous pressure on the column; the Cavorite, also weightless, hence shoots itself into space. The main characters are able to devise a system of windows that can negate the shielding that Cavorite applies, which enables them to make a steerable ship.

Cavorite is also featured as a plot point in Alan Moore's graphic novel League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where it is used to create an aerial warship which is unleashed in the climax of Volume I. In it, only a small amount of Cavorite can be used as the power source of an "engine" that provides lift for the enormous ship.

I highly recommend giving League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a look for the aesthetics alone; its setting is that of an enormously amplified Victorian era where late-19th and early-20th century contemporary speculative fiction is real. The movie, on the other hand, is bad and has nothing to do with the comic.

When Cavorite is used without a way to control the shielding, it causes air to escape the Earth's atmosphere. If you had a large enough sheet of it secured to the ground, then given enough time the Earth would be rendered airless and hence lifeless (or not, more on that later). Furthermore, the force applied by atmospheric pressure on the now-weightless air has the potential to be destructive on its own. Ground-based Cavorite installations could, in theory, be used as a form of weather control, as the Cavorite effectively creates a persistent point of low barometric pressure.

All of this has a very relevant side-effect: Cavorite can be easily weaponized, but it is also controllable. Cavorite can only be manufactured through a specific process, and any country that wants to make large amounts of it would need to trade for some very specific machinery and materials. Due to this, we have a situation similar to Uranium, as another answer mentioned.

While mass quantities of Cavorite could be used in things like weather control, or power generation or what have you, the consensus is that it's simply too unsafe. This could be explored in a Chernobyl-like accident where a Cavorite power plant's shielding failed, which effectively created a permanent hurricane around the region that made it impossible to re-shield. The storm may rage to this very day. For this reason, it is simply not allowed to have Cavorite present in large concentrations anywhere.

While Cavorite could have many more uses if used in greater quantities, nobody's been foolhardy enough to try it yet; smaller quantities of Cavorite are only really useful in powering airships, so that's what the majority of it is used for.

In actuality, the air that is shot out from the Earth's atmosphere would dissipate, and it almost certainly would not have enough speed to escape Earth's gravity altogether, meaning virtually all of the air that gets ejected from the atmosphere would fall back to Earth. But of course, dissipation theory is still in its infancy so it's still widely believed that the accident at the Cavorite power plant could eventually suck all of the air out of the Earth.

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The material has negative mass, but its density is really low.

Think of something like Styrofoam but, with negative weight.

You still need a huge block of it to lift something, but you can still lift several times more than you can using hydrogen, helium, or hot air balloons.

The very low density makes the material weak. Really the only thing you can do with it is make it into beads and put it in a large sack (like a giant anti-grav beanbag?).

You can't build stable structures out of it because it breaks apart under stress.

Also, needing a lot of material means that you can't do society altering things like build antigravity backpacks, or weightless horse carriages.

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Possibly this resource works via refined resource repel unrefined resource with the unrefined resource being scattered throughout the ground. Resulting in floatation. But this means it cannot be used industrially as it does not lighten but repulse. But this could possibly lead to something like maglev trains with unrefined resource lining the rails & refined resource on the trains. Making airships not the primary means of transportation.

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What about something that harvests static electricity to use as mobilization power? The relatively large surface area of an archetypal dirigible and believable practicality of building the "balloon" part of the aircraft with, say, an electrically inductive metal skeleton, that could justify a whole slew of creative electromagnetic explanations for atmospheric buoyancy as well as propulsion.

I would definitely look into a relatively inert balloon gas, though Helium is plenty believable and very stable, only reason we don't use it in "real life" is b/c it's harder (expensive) to come by. Elemental helium presents at typical terrestrial temperatures and pressures as a low-density gas, much lighter than air (which is essentially 80/20 nitrogen N2 and oxygen O2 gas), which is the reason for the season as far as the buoyancy. Problem is, Helium is SO buoyant in atmospheric air that it will often achieve escape velocity at some point and straight-up outpace of our orbit altogether. Since it is also non-reactive, it doesn't form mineral compounds that could potentially keep it trapped in crustal rock/sediment.

To satisfy your stipulation of the minimal disruptive impact of this tech on other technologies and social institutions outside of air travel, this might be justified by the need for your static harvesting "vessel" to be in near-constant motion as well as navigable to areas of greater static electricity accumulation (dragging its metaphorical socks on the driest carpets of cloud that it can find.. wow feel free to use that tragically lame metaphor I just served everyone). Only airships satisfy the need for huge surface areas as well as mobility necessary to properly utilize this static harvester device.

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You can lock it's negative-weight property to another conditions.

  • Temperature: You can make the material to require being heated at very high temperatures in order to reach a negative-weight of any significance (maybe the material normally weights -4g at 25°C but at 2000°C it weights -200Kg)
  • Electrical current: You can also make it require having an electric current being passed through.
  • Vibration: It can instead require it to be vibrated at certain frequency to achieve negative weight. Maybe you can also play with this and make it work at different frequencies depending on the type or shape of material and if you vibrate a certain type at the wrong frequency it won't be weightless.
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