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I am working on a Hard Sci-Fi novel. In this novel Humanity has set up a drilling operation on the fictional exoplanet Hela. They are drilling for Trivesene, which is an Oil like viscus organic substance found in reservoirs underneath the oceans. Trivesene can be turned into the solid Petramene though carbonization. Petramene displays superconductivity at room temperature, a wide pressure range and a critical current of 980 Amp/mm².

In the spirit of Hard Sci-Fi, I want to give Petramene a functional chemical formula. Please note, I know this formula will always be bs. The chances of a random compound being superconducting in the way described are 0. But this is not the point. I want to have a formula which passes the "vibe" check. I.e something a Chemist could look at and not see any immediate problems. Such as impossible / unstable bonds. This is my personal goal, a Formula which works on a technical bases and seems reasonable.

Why is this needed for the Story ? A valid question I am sure some have. This problem could be avoid if the formula never came up. My research into the impact of a Room Temperature Superconductor has however lead me onto a problem of plausibility. The TLDR is that a RTS like Petramene would have such a fundamental and wide spreading effect on Humanity, it can only be compared to the invention of Electricity. We are talking about such a drastic shift in how things are done, history would be divided into the Pre and Post Superconducting era. And personally I just don't buy such an important substance would not be drilled into Childrens heads in Chemistry 101. Like, we are talking about "Page one, what is a Compound ?", picture of Petramene to the left with the formula type deals of cultural significance. A gameshow question, that one fun fact everyone knows. Like how Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the Cell.

Now I will come out and say that the story is about Environmental protection wrapped in a emotional exploitation metaphor, with the core character dynamic being metaphorical for how Humanity is threating the planet in their exploitation affords. So the story gives lip service to the Formula, just like it just acknowledges the existence of the Interstellar Ships that brought Ellie (MC) to the planet. It all exists in the background and has limited importance to the plot. But, I am personally not satisfied with leaving it at that. I went into a lot of afford for instance in making the Interstellar logistics work, and this lead to a couple of cool scenes as well as a central part of the ending. And while I doubt a chemical formula will have a same effect, I still want one just to maintain the standard I set for other aspects. Be it logistics or the Alien lifeforms.

What I have so far

Since the goal is to make a fake compound which passes as a Superconductor I went to this list and some other sites to create a collection of elements found in real ones.

enter image description here

These are all the elements which could reasonable be a part of Petramene. Furthermore I was advised by a friend to look into Covalent superconductors as they contain a lot of Carbon.

Why Carbon ? As I mentioned before, Petramene is made out of Trivesene. Which is at the end of the day just a very complex organic compound. So it has to be made out of dead stuff. Similar to Oil.

To illustrate my motivation behind how Trivesene is made on Hela, but not Earth. Because if I am going to claim this stuff is worth going Interstellar for, then there better be a good reason for why it is not abundant on Earth. Two factors are responsible for the relative abundance of Trivesene on Hela, but lack on Earth.

First, Hela has deeper oceans (up to 30 kilometers). Second, Hela is a lot more geologically active. The depth of the oceans, in my mind, is important because it allows for dead stuff to sink to the bottom withouth being eaten. As life physically needs longer to adapt to the deep sea. So we have a layer of organic materials on the ocean floor which will remain untouched way longer than they were on Earth. The Volcanic / Geological activity comes into play as it deposits other elements, such as Iron or Bismuth, onto the organic layer. This mixture is then cooked for a few 100 million years and Tada you have Trivesene.

This stuff does occur on Earth, there just isn't a lot of it. The conditions of Earth didn't allow for it to form, and even then Earth is older than Hela by about 1 Billion years. Trivesene is not stable and will eventually be destroyed by Natrual processes. Geology and life on Earth just had more time to get rid of the little bit of Trivesene there was. While on Hela, the stuff basically peaked right now.

I think this justification (Wrong Conditions + more time to destroy it) are plausible enough for why there is basically non of this stuff left on Earth. But if not I am happy to change it with something more accurate.

My original idea was to take real world superconductors, like $Li_3Ca_2C_6$ and say $H_2S$, and slap them together. For instance to form the total abomination that is $LiCa_2C_6Fe_2MgSCu_2O_6$. But I was quickly told this was a bad plan. Which is true, it is lazy at best.

Rules

Looking at real Superconductors you can see certain trends. I want to use these trends, together with some personal requirements, to kind of limit where this formula goes.

  • Long Formula (high temperature superconductors tend to be very long compounds or Cuprates. Presumably a RTS wont be $Li_2S$)
  • Carbon / Graphene structures (from a discussion I read on Organic Superconductivity, people seem to think if such a thing exists it would involve Graphene ($C_6$ for example) bonds
  • Rare-earth element (in order for Petramene to be believable it would have to include some relatively uncommon stuff, Bismuth for instance, in the Trivesene form)
  • Organic (This is covered in the Carbon section but I just wanted to mention it. For the "backstory" to work it kind of needs to be organic)

Le Problem

And this is where I am stuck. I can make you a random Compound that does not break the bare minimum of rules, such as being neutral, but I just don't know nearly enough about Chemistry to really judge anything in particular.

To add to the problem, I have a extremely hard time understanding what makes any specific compound easy to produce. The whole scenario kind of bets on there not being an easy way to make Trivesene. But if I slap out the Formular for Petramene I set myself up to the standard that there really shouldn't be an obvious way of making it. Making Petramene say $C_2Bi_2Sr_2CuSO_6$ wouldn't work for example. Hence the length requirement, as far as I can tell longer compounds tend to be harder to make on scale.

I am for instance totally willing to say they can make Trivesene, but it would just take to much energy. To the point where going Interstellar is the better option.

What I need

Help first and foremost xD I don't really want to ask someone to sit down and make a 20 element long compound for some random stranger. So really, I would like some advice on how to achieve my goal. Are there any books I can read ? Any websites ? I am already through like half of Professor Dave Explains playlist of Chemistry. But lets just say I nearly failed to get into Uni duo to my chemistry grade.

Of course, if there is some Samaritan out here who has a bit of time to spare I wont complain. But from all the reading I have done so far, this really isn't an easy task and requires some actual consideration. The moment a formula is dropped this way, the bar is sky high. I would basically say to the reader "And now prove me otherwise". Which is a really bad idea if I myself am not sure how bullet proved it is.

I also want to end this by saying I know this is a really unimportant aspect in the grand scheme of things. If I didn't have the plot, character arcs etc. worked out I also wouldn't ask this. Because it is just not that important. But these things are worked out. If I cant find a solution, ill just drop the idea. But I had the same "Dive into a rabbit hole" with the interstellar logistics and making all of that Hard Sci-Fi and this resulted in some very cool visual / plot aspects. So I am willing to do this again. To an extend. Obviously we allow some significant handwaving by having Room Temperature Superconductivity in the first place.

Closing Words

Thanks for reading ! I hope this question matches the standards of this site and I explained my problem sufficiently.

I did prove read this, but English is not my first language so please excuse any grammatical or spelling mistakes. If you need / want clarifications, I am happy to provide whatever is needed !

Thanks again and have a nice day !

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not a Samaritan but as a tribute to them I recommend you include Samarium in your formula. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jun 30, 2023 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ (a) If you roll your mouse over the science-based and hard-science tags, you'll discover they're mutually exclusive. The hard-science tag is not what you think it is. Please take the time to read the tag wikis before using them. In the meantime, you need to pick one. (You should seriously consider picking sceince-fiction, what you've asked for will be very hard to achieve with a science-based answer.) (b) What, exactly, are you asking for? Per the help center, you're expected to be specific. Are you looking for advice or for a solution? (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 1, 2023 at 2:44
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    $\begingroup$ ... Finally (d) You ask if there are books you can read or websites you can visit that would help you achieve your goal. Please think more carefully about this. What you just asked us to do was show you to the nearest university where, after 4-6 years and a quality education, you could do this yourself. Don't feel bad about this, we're happy to help, but it's important to understand that Stack Exchange isn't designed to replace an education. And our goal is worldbuilding, not necessarily chemistry, so our basic goal is to help you build an imaginary world. Keep that scope in mind... $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 1, 2023 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ ... and perhaps use it to edit your post and narrow its focus. Finally, finally... (e) Please remember that readers will forgive almost any weakness if you write a good story, but if you write a bad story no amount of realism will save it. "Hard science" as a genre is cool, but if the story isn't engaging, it doesn't matter... especially if you're only in a position to believe that what you're reading is real. You'd be surprised how many "hard science" stories really aren't. At least not to any significant extent. Cheers. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 1, 2023 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not really sure the social part of this question holds up. You could justifiably divide industrial chemistry into pre- and post-plastics, and you probably learned in school about some of the most important applications of it. You might even be able to name some of the more common plastics, like polyethylene or polystyrene. But did you learn their chemical formulae first-day in chem class? I sure didn't. And I certainly didn't learn why some polymers are found in nature and others aren't, that's a much more advanced topic. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jul 1, 2023 at 4:36

8 Answers 8

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Frame challenge: what makes the material hard to produce isn't visible from the formula

Chemical formulae are a simplification of what really goes on. There could be many materials with the exact same formula (and chemical structure) with wildly different properties.

Let's take a simple example: ice. It's just crystalline H2O, right? No, there are actually 19 different known forms of ice.

Why is this relevant?

As far as we know, superconductivity is highly dependent on the structure of the crystal lattice, so your wonder material can easily be a highly unusual crystal form of an otherwise more common material (like SmFeAsO0.85F0.15). Which happens to be stable but to force it into the right structure you need to expose it to temperatures and pressures we can't produce on Earth, then cool it and relieve the pressure in a very precise way to avoid it reverting to its more common shape.

And you're done. A plausible room-temperature superconductor.

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    $\begingroup$ You could just display diamond vs graphite for your example, the diamond is a metastable form of carbon that forms under gigantic pressure and pretty high temperature. But, for all the applications such metastable forms are unusable because you can't make them long or bend them without losing superconductivity. So while the challenge is great as is, it can only explain natural mineral's extraordinary properties, and no industry-ready applications. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Jul 1, 2023 at 4:53
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    $\begingroup$ Just like how reading the "Nutrition Facts" and ingredients list doesn't mean you can make an Oreo. $\endgroup$
    – IronEagle
    Jul 1, 2023 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @ErikHall The "shape" (as you call it) is everything when it comes to superconductors and semiconductors. $\endgroup$
    – Hearth
    Jul 2, 2023 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ Alright you get the correct answer, though i will note i combined your idea / approach with other suggestions. But ultimately your answer was the one to bring it on the right track. Thank you ! and thanks to all the other commentors as well :D $\endgroup$
    – ErikHall
    Jul 2, 2023 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ This is absolutely true for the common superconductors such as YBCO. You can mix all the chemicals and come up with molecules with the same formula but they don't even conduct let alone superconduct, there is a fairly advanced process involving pyrolysis and annealing under a special atmosphere to actually make it superconduct. I can't imagine any superconductors wouldn't have this quality as crystal structure plays a key role and isn't in the formula. $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2023 at 12:50
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Frame Challenge: The chemical formula is NOT common knowledge

You have run afoul of Average Familiarity Bias. Because you have an in-depth knowledge of chemistry, you assume that "basic chemistry" is common knowledge, but it in-fact is not. Not only does the average person not know the chemical formula for olivine, feldspar, or quartz, but as hard as this may be to grasp, the average person does not even know the chemical formula for Methane or Table Salt.

Most people know literally ONE chemical formula off the top of their head: $\ce{H2O}$. And they only know that one because it is the example every teacher at every level of school uses as an example for a chemical formula... and they only use water because it is so darn simple that it does not take a lot of explaining. Even if your substance were a relatively simple compound like $\ce{YBa2Cu3O7}$... very few people that don't actually work in the industry will EVER bother to memorize it.

Instead of the the chemical formula, what will become common knowledge about it is the a description of what makes it a room temp super conductor. Imagine your substance as being comparable to Kevlar. Everyone knows what Kevlar is, it is some stuff that can stop bullets... but unless you are specifically a petrochemist who works in military R&D, you probably won't know off the top of your head that its chemical formula is $\ce{[-CO-C6H4-CO-NH-C6H4-NH-]n}$.

Likewise, a lot of people will know what Petramene is, but they will know it in the context of what it does for them. They will know it is a room temperature super conductor. Even when you ask your smart fried, they will be able to describe how Petramene works by having a molecular structure that lines up such that electrons move along it in sync with the vibrating atomic nuclei... but even most of those guys won't know its chemical formula off the top of thier head.

Since you said you just want this to be a piece of background information, there is actually a very slight change you can make that will solve all sorts of world building problems for you... have people NOT be able to answer the question when it comes up. It means that no chemist can ever call you out for your BS formula, it means no future discoveries will make your world look silly and dated, and most importantly, it shows off the actual ignorance of the people in your setting which is important when telling a story about "Environmental protection wrapped in a emotional exploitation metaphor, with the core character dynamic being metaphorical for how Humanity is threatening the planet in their exploitation affords." By using your background banter to highlight how little the average person actually knows, you will better server the main goal of your story.

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    $\begingroup$ Anecdotal, but I've read all of the answers here and glazed over the chemical formulas in every one of them the first time through; I wager that 99% (or more!) of OP's readers will do the same. $\endgroup$
    – minnmass
    Jul 2, 2023 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ This is the only correct answer. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Jul 2, 2023 at 8:02
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If you want to go tongue in cheek, you might go with something like $FRh_3HeCuReN_2Th$ or $NO_xReSi_2STaNCe$.

At the end it works perfectly fine with Unobtanium and Handwavium, not counting all the space missions and probes...

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    $\begingroup$ NOReSiSTaNCe <- Normally, I'd say that including an exact chemical formula for your unobtanium is bad world building... but this answer might actually make it worth while. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 2, 2023 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ So this is Word Building. ;-P $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @PabloH Realism is not always the goal of worldbuilding. Watching a cat get run through a wood chipper in one scene and then be fine the next is good world building if your are writing in the style of Loony Toons... it all depends on the tone of your story. If your story is already a light-hearted satire, then something like this could be considered good World Building. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 7, 2023 at 15:03
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The problem here is that Interstellar travel is going to be extraordinarily energy intensive (vast nuclear fusion powered engines don’t really provide enough oomph for the required Interstellar travel by a wide margin), whereas Trivesene is just chemical synthesis even if it involves high temperatures / pressures and reactive chemicals it’s unlikely to be anywhere near as energy intensive as interstellar travel.

You might be better off saying something like this: The structure of Trivesene is not well understood and is currently the subject of a great deal of research and debate. Although the empirical structure has been established as Sb2N7B6C15EuGdY2U3 it has not been possible to establish its structural formula.

Trivesene is readily and very rapidly degraded by high temperatures, ionization, x-rays and even UV. Crystallography, mass spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy (and many other instrumental techniques) have failed to provided any useful information.

The infrared spectra has been measured but the spectra is difficult to interpret as the few peaks seen do not correspond to known bonds or functional groups. Experts are still trying to interpret results of analysis using magnetic resonance spectroscopy. The spectra has simply been described as bizarre by one team at Oxford.

Despite the fact that Trivesene and its decomposition products are non radioactive, the latest theories suggest that some exotic form of nuclear matter may be involved. How this could possibly be achieved is still a mystery.

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  • $\begingroup$ Reading all the good responses, i feel like banking on the crystalline / chemical structure being a pain to replicate is the way to go. I looked a bit into crystalline structures and from what i can tell anyways this might just be the silver bullet. Petramene or Trivesene are not chemically complex, but structrually a pain $\endgroup$
    – ErikHall
    Jul 1, 2023 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ Yes if its a very complex structure with many unusual elemental combinations there might not be any synthetic routes available. No doubt it would be worked on, but it could take decades. Even something like chlorophyll was a massive chemical challenge $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jul 1, 2023 at 22:25
  • $\begingroup$ I like that a lot, thank you ! It definitely feels more realistic than making a 50 Element long compound and expecting anyone to belive that can form naturally $\endgroup$
    – ErikHall
    Jul 1, 2023 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ Isomerism is another approach to making it not synthesizable. One particular isomer, found in great quantities on Hela, has the superconductive effect, but if you try to synthesize it on an industrial scale you get a mish-mash of all different isomers that ruin the effect. You could painstakingly synthesize tiny amounts for laboratory use, which is how we discovered its properties and then set out looking for somewhere that might have more, but to get enough for industry you need to mine it. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jul 2, 2023 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ Yes there might well be some particularly difficult structural configurations that were both difficult to synthesize and showed different physical properties like geometric isomerism around double bonds. But I would avoid enantiomers and optical isomers as they tend to have almost exactly the same physical properties, differing only in how they rotate polarized light and in their chemical properties. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jul 2, 2023 at 8:51
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A problem I see is that as you describe it, Trivesen must be some very complex biomaterial. It has to be, artificallly reproduing it is so challenging it was easier to just go interstellar instead!

Postulate: The complexity must be on the molecular level. Exotic crystal structures won't do, as you postulate Trivesten to be a liquid, and also because you carbonize it later which would alter the lattice. At this point, the material must have the complexity of some proteins - othervise it's implausible that a civilization capable of interstellar travel can't recreate it.

Problem: Proteins have very poor outlook for forming a superconductor, exactly because of their complexity. I don't think it's plausible at all. The main point of superconducting is to form Cooper pairs of electrons that together behave as a singular bozonic particle - and this is disturbed by the slightest crystal imperfection. But a protein is so much larger than the electron that it wouldn't even "realize" it's in a lattice! No wonder most superconducting materials are alloys and have a mostly ionic lattice. (Pherhaps a superconduction expert chimes in with a counterexample though.)

Solution: Make (most of) the protein the backbone of the superconducting lattice, not the part of it!

Suppose the protein has, for example, a helical shape, forming a tube, or pherhaps a branching, net-like structure of tubes. During the carbonization process, the part of the Trivesen molecule inside this tube undergoes a certain dissociation, and metallic atoms previously part of the structure break from it These then form nanofilaments of some superconducting alloy within the tubes. The remnant of the Triversen provides an isolating wall to these tubes, leading to an unique one-dimensional quantum confinement of the electrons, which in this exact arrangement enables the Cooper pairs to stay stable up to temperatures beyond room temperature; hence room-temperature superconduction. You can also swap the nanotubes to a layered structure (think of cell walls), and have nanolayers instead.

What does this mean to your question?

The total chemical formula is absolutely irrelevant. Not only for the superconduction, but in general too. Proteins are huge: a random example, the protein 8DEQ has 19.400 atoms (and it can get much worse, well beyond 100.000). You never refer to proteins by their stochiometry - it would be like describing the ISS by the total number of screws and wires in it!

The only important thing for your story is that at the right location, it contains the elements that you need for the superconducting filament. The rest? Nobody cares. The structure matters, the stochiometry not at all.


For demonstration, here is the shape of the mentioned protein (image from RSCB, also check out in 3D):

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Now this is an interesting approach. . . If i understand it right, you would argue for a Protein based material, which is really complex and happens to either become superconducting when carbonizing / subjecting to a chemical process or it is by itself. This would change the framing a lot and make it rather obvious why this stuff isn't on Earth. It requires some Alien bacteria (Here called Kahliytoka) to make the stupid protein. Maybe you could argue we just need one specific protein in one "form" which is why just importing the bacteria is no option ? Thanks a lot for this suggestion ! $\endgroup$
    – ErikHall
    Jul 2, 2023 at 6:41
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You are probably right. Carbon is a super-resistor, a resistor, a semiconductor, a conductor, and possibly a superconductor. If it superconducts, you want to inject a few more electrons into the delocalised pi conduction band. You may have superconductivity in the inside of buckytubes, though I don't know anyone who has proved it exists. But carbon is a very good starting point.

What is the scale of your superconductivity? If you are using it to transmit power then there are all sorts of problems, particularly at either end where the power goes in and out, and you have to couple your super electron wave state to the external world. If you are trying to make powerful magnets then you can make a molecular-scale magnet with a small current endlessly circulating in the pi-bands as a magnetic isomer, and then crystallize that. No in or out, just a closed loop. You could also build molecular-scale magnetic logic circuits.

I used to work with superconductors. I would have loved to build the magnetic isomer magnet.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the comment ! So atm the lore uses this plot; ibb.co/RYdtM81 . And the first sentence of the article on it says "Petramene is a black, blueish solid ceramic like organic isomeric polymer Room Temperature Superconductor.". Most specifics are gone, and it just mentions that there is a lot of Carbon and some lithium among other elements. As for the scale... uhm worldwide ? Like they have Superconducting magnetic storage devices in smartphones. $\endgroup$
    – ErikHall
    Jul 3, 2023 at 19:42
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When I was 12 I read James Blish's Earthman, Come Home, 1953. There was mention in one scene of a poisonous gas named Hawkesite, and the protagonist Amalfi thought that it was also called, "for no discoverable reason", by a very long chemical name. I looked at the very long chemical name and didn't try to read it, because it was too long and complicated looking.

Later there was a scene in a bathroom and Amalfi noticed that the floor tiles were arranged in a complicated pattern of rings which reminded him of the chemical structure of Hawkesite.

And years later I was reading the section where Hawkesite was mentioned again, and I saw the long chemical name polybathroomflourine and realized that it could be pronounced as "Poly-bath-room-floor-ing".

So maybe you should get chemists to make up long and complicated chemical names, some components of which sound like normal worlds, and which more or less add up to phrases that people might possibly say. And maybe the chemists can also make up the formulas which would go with the name. You might hold a contest for the most real looking chemical name which sounds the funniest when spoken.

And maybe you can say that the name use by the characters is a pun that someone made up because the real formula reminded them of a phrase which is common in their society. If so you don't have to give the real chemical name.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have put down the formula "NOxReSi2STaNCe" from @L.Dutch, along with other lines which may be used. Perhaps something like "You can rearrange the elements to spell that" or something like that. The sort of dad joke a scientist would make. But regarding a proper formula, that idea is ditched. Because it appears to not be super meaningful anyways. Instead i just use the description "organic isomeric polymer" for Petramene. And mention that it contains Lithium, Carbon, iron and a few other elements. $\endgroup$
    – ErikHall
    Jul 4, 2023 at 21:33
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Earth-rare Isotopes

Most introductory Chem-101 courses explain the basics of how Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons come together to form the different elements; along the way Isotopes are often defined and then quickly glossed over as "behaving chemically the same as all other isotopes of that same chemical element". Although that statement is mostly true, it isn't precisely true.

While chemical bonding is driven by the electromagnetic forces between the Electrons and Protons, it is incorrect to say that gravitational forces due to the Neutrons have absolutely-zero effects. A heavier nucleus will more strongly pull electrons inward: slightly shrinking the atom's ionic radii compared to normal. Generally, these sorts of tweaks only slightly affect the properties of an isotope-specific element or an isotope-specific molecule; for example "heavy water" D2O boils at 101.4°C instead of 100°C for normal, everyday, "light water" H2O - which is why it gets glossed over as "basically the same".

In the case of high-tech materials, though, various parameters are tuned by changing the composition and processing such that just the right crystal structures are formed. These tiny isotopic tweaks, therefore, might be just enough to make some 'boring' material 'extraordinary'.

Perhaps the planet's lifeforms have bioaccumulated extraordinarily-pure Carbon-13 compounds which eventually became the Trivesene, or maybe it's an extraordinary abundance of of Hydrogen-2 on your hydrocarbons, or Nickel-64 (or any combination of multiple such processes).


All this should let you basically just pick a realworld compound that mostly fits the bill (other than being "RT" superconducting) and then allows a handwavium explanation for why it goes RT-superconducting when sourced from this particular location.

(Assuming nuclear-enrichment technology isn't massively-cheaper in your fictional universe).

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