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Background

Science fiction is rife with "super materials". Most often the materials are made from elements unknown to Current Era (CE) science. They use names that make us think of elements without being real elements.

Some examples of these are

  • Tritanium
  • Duranium
  • Dilithium
  • Tricobalt
  • Trilithium
  • Naquadah
  • Naquadria
  • Neutronium

The problem is that anyone even casually knowledgeable of physics or chemistry knows that these "elements" don't exist - nor are there any "missing" elements in the periodic table.

I have worked with advanced materials and know that there's really a few ways we can get materials with exotic properties:

  1. New alloy combinations (e.g. Beryllium + Aluminum or high temperature super conductors).
  2. New composite combinations (e.g. Nanotube fiber + some matrix materials).
  3. New methods of crystallization, cooling, or heat treatment (e.g. into amorphous solids)
  4. Elements unknown to CE science (using Islands of Stability).
  5. Use non-baryonic matter.

Island of Stability:

In nuclear physics, the island of stability is the prediction that a set of heavy isotopes with a near magic number of protons and neutrons will temporarily reverse the trend of decreasing stability in elements heavier than Uranium. Although predictions of the exact location differ somewhat, Klaus Blaum expects the island of stability to occur in the region near the isotope 300Ubn.[1] Estimates about the amount of stability on the island are usually around a half-life of minutes or days, with "some optimists" expecting half-lives of millions of years.[2]

Although the theory has existed since the 1960s, the existence of such superheavy, relatively stable isotopes has not been demonstrated. Like the rest of the superheavy elements, the isotopes on the island of stability have never been found in nature, and so must be created in an artificial nuclear reaction to be studied. However, scientists have not found a way to carry out such a reaction.

The Question

So for SF stories that require a material with exotic properties, what properties might these "super materials" hold in reality?

I realize that's a wide open question, so although I am interested in speculations, I will judge based upon the material's structural properties (tension, compression, bearing, shear, etc.).

Remember bulk material properties are dependent upon the chemical bond strengths so we are limited by the strength of covalent bonds.

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closed as too broad by sphennings, Frostfyre, Sec SE - clear Monica's name, Azuaron, anon Dec 1 '17 at 15:35

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ According to "unstable molecules theory" they are subjected not to local electrical stimuli but to something far more distant recall quantum electrodynamics vacuum contains zero point energy which isn't zero energy. Okay I'll stop for now as this is pushing too far already😆 $\endgroup$ – user6760 Nov 15 '15 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ There was a very interesting article on chemistry under non-Earth-normal conditions in New Scientist recently. Unfortunately it's behind a paywall and they don't sell single article / day access. Link here if you do want to buy or you could find someone that as a paper copy. newscientist.com/article/… $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Nov 16 '15 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ Neutronium exists, but no scientists have yet got a sample. $\endgroup$ – Jasen Dec 29 '16 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ Dilithium and trilithium is not fully fictious, as they are only forms of lithium. $\endgroup$ – Václav Dec 1 '17 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ The answer to "What properties might these fictional materials have?" is "They can have whatever properties you want them to have?" This question is too broad and opinion based for the site as of late 2017. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 1 '17 at 12:51
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Your closing remark, Remember bulk material properties are dependent upon the chemical bond strengths so we are limited by the strength of covalent bonds. makes me think "maybe not".

A great cutting-edge research topic for near-future SF is the use of magnetic flux pinning and superconductors to make large-scale structure. A space station can be held together by flux that's stronger than physical material and yet can be stressed and replaced without permanent damage. Two modules can be held in relative position by invisible lines of force, as strong as the power you can feed to augment it, using electromagnetism to offset or restore from any outside force. Normally it's passive in that a force to one object that causes it to move relative to the other will induce electric currents in the superconductor which generate forces to compensate and reverse the motion. So the force trying to tear it apart is being used against itself to resist the separation, as long as the superconductor can buffer it. In reality you need to add some power to overcome losses and make it "go back" rather than being able to perfectly resist a force with infinitesimal movement produced.

The result from a large view is an unbreakable beam of apparent unlimited strength. For a network mesh of elements, it can be elastic (allow them to move and store energy in the superconductors or as magnetic fields) or rigid or change from one to the other, or reconfigure on command by changing the presented magnetic flux tubes and capture points.

Now scale that down: instead of nodes being multi-ton spacecraft modules, what if they were built using nanotechnology, with one node being the size of a mineral grain? What appears to be a common brick or stone would be held together not with residual covalent forces between the mineral grains, but with magnetic flux pinning and the ability to put the grains all back where they belong with no permanent damage after a huge stress passes through.

It would be a human-scale material with unlimited strength, far more than you can suppose from normal atomic bond strengths even with what you get from fullerenes!

How's that for super-material?

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  • $\begingroup$ The individual modules would still be made of normal physical materials. How do the loads between module members get transferred through their structure? $\endgroup$ – Jim2B May 11 '16 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ A small grain, if bashed hard, will accelerate away, not be smashed by being against a hard backing. The separation and magnetic springs act as cushioning. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 11 '16 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ So uh how would the super conductors be placed, would the whole thing be made of superconductors or what? $\endgroup$ – Efialtes Apr 16 '18 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Efialtes no, each node of a large structure has superconducting acchor points where they fit together. Miniturizing, I picture each grain would have one dot surrounded by hard material. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 17 '18 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ OHHHHH, thank you very much for that now I get it. $\endgroup$ – Efialtes Apr 17 '18 at 19:01
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Quark matter strangelets are theorized to have interesting properties (including the apocalyptic one of infecting and converting normal matter into "strange" matter).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_matter

Strange matter is a particular form of quark matter, usually thought of as a “liquid” of up, down and strange quarks. It is to be contrasted with nuclear matter, which is a liquid of neutrons and protons (which themselves are built out of up and down quarks), and with non-strange quark matter, which is a quark liquid containing only up and down quarks. At high enough density, strange matter is expected to be color superconducting. Strange matter is hypothesized to occur in the core of neutron stars, or, more speculatively, as isolated droplets that may vary in size from femtometers (strangelets) to kilometers (quark stars).

The true beauty of strange matter is revealed when you interact normal matter with a strangelet.

... with each absorbed neutron releasing ~10 MeV of energy (Fahri & Jaffel984), ...

Stop and think about that; this is many times the energy release of nuclear fusion reactions. A strangelet would be releasing photons at fantastic energies just by feeding it with a slow stream of neutrons. A ship powered by a strangelet engine would be a fantastic weapon simply by slewing the vessel around to point the drive beam at whatever seem threatening.

So while you might not want to build anything out of strange matter, you can use it as a pretty compact energy source.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think that stuff is only stable under extreme pressure $\endgroup$ – Jasen Dec 29 '16 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ While no one has actually isolated "Strange" quarklets, there is a theory that they can be metastable and don't need to be contained under neutron star pressures and density. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Dec 29 '16 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ When I read about Strange matter, I discovered there is a hypothesis that Strange matter could be stable under terrestrial conditions after being formed in the intense pressure of a Neutron Star. This is NOT the most widely accepted hypothesis but it hasn't been disproven either. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B May 30 '18 at 2:54
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There are very many natural and artificial materials which today are available only in tiny quantities. In the future, in bulk? Examples include spider silk (and spinarets to fabricate with it) and buckminsterfullerenes with precisely controlled chemical substitutions so they can be built into molecules and polymers. Oh and unwettable dirt-shedding fabrics nanostructured like lotus leaves.

One thing we have no leads on. Theory suggests room temperature superconductors are possible. If one were discovered it would have huge impact. Superconductivity remains very poorly understood compared to most other properties of matter.

It's not really a supermaterial but if someone could work out how to produce muons in an energy-efficient manner we'd have our energy needs satisfied via muon-catalysed fusion: a trivially simple process if you have the muons.

More possibly a really high energy density battery or capacitor that lasts well and is not prone to exploding when provoked. I'm optimistic i'll see electrical energy storage cracked in my lifetime and a fully solar powered future arriving.

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you give more information on what theory provides for room-temperature superconductors? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 15 '15 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ @JDlugosz I can't remember when and where I read that and filed it as "interesting" but you'll find it here stated by a well-qualified source: mpg.de/9366213/superconductivity-htdrogen-sulfide. "There is theoretically no limit for the transition temperature of conventional superconductors". $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 16 '15 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Now see, "conventional" (BSC theory) superconductors do have a hard limit well below room temperature. High-Tc superconductors are not fully understood yet, so it seems improper to say that theory does not set a limit; but there has been much progress so I wondered if you had newer information. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 16 '15 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ Diatomic metastable Helium is a possible energy storage mechanism that could also be used in rocket engines for $I_{sp}$ higher than any other chemical type engine. $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Nov 11 '16 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ a battery that can't explode doesn't contain energy. the explosion is just failure of the energy containment. $\endgroup$ – Jasen Dec 29 '16 at 8:07
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Don't forget "programmable matter" as invented by Wil McCarthy.

quasi-living nanomaterials that have the equivalent of "blood" (resource distribution) and metabolism, and might or might not have a cell structure (think bone for a natural example).

atomic-scale structures or layers that allow novel or optimal combinations of properties, while not being overly mysterious in fundamental limits of what individual properties (like strength) can allow.

Look at what's been discovered about graphene, and now-mundane semiconductors in general. Electrical characteristics might not be interesting for "material", but imagine the same kind of control being applied to the atomic bonds that are responsible for bulk mechanical properties.

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  • $\begingroup$ Somewhat like is the possibility of genetically modified organisms far removed from any naturally occuring bodytype. A living, self-maintaining house doesn't seem too implausible (though I doubt it could grow glass, you'd probably have to supply windows and doors and it would grow to hold them in place). Sewers might no longer be needed! $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Nov 16 '15 at 15:36
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This answer relies on knowledge from my answer at Does Mohs scale of mineral hardness always hold? so I suggest that you read it before you continue reading this answer.

Different materials are best for different purposes so it might not be best to create only one material to use for many purposes. For each purpose, there's a trade-off between different advantageous properties.

Given a set of properties that we want a material to have all of, there exists a an amount of each property that a material can exist with each of for which there can exist a material with even more of one of those properties but not without having less of one of the other properties.

It can sometimes be desiarable to create a single material with many purposes because it enables many different objects to be recycled together because they're all made of the same material.

Here are some possible desirable traits for such a multipurpose material: nuclear stability, infinite ductility, theoretical strength, thermal stability, reactivity, amorphous, and non-stick.

I can think of such a good material but don't know if it's stable enough to be able to be produced. Grow a perfect crystal of Carbon(IV) nitride around a seed crystal by slowly freezing it out of its molten state in an environment with a precisely controlled temperature to get rid of all impurities.

Melt it and add a small bit of excess nitrogen atoms then let it slowly cool from a very high temperature in a crucible it doesn't stick to to be stress free after it undergoes the glass transition.

I think its maximum homogeneous nucleation rate is low enough that it can undergo the glass transition because not very much volume energy would be released in the nucleation of the crystalline state because when nitrogen makes 3 bonds, its bonds can flex back and forth with ease.

Next, etch it nanosmooth with a liquid that has a contact angle greater than 90° with it. Because it has a contact angle greater than 90°, it will not stack to the object or even leave one drop on it after the last bit of the object gets pulled out so it will not evaporate from the substance redepositing what it etched away as a rough surface.

I think that as a result of the slight excess of nitrogen atoms, it will be a covalent network with random walking half antibonds and if the etching acid is dilute enough, atoms will be dissolving much faster than they're precipitating onto the surface because it's a dissolution by chemical reaction so half antibonds will random walk to the surface faster than the surface atoms get etched away giving the surface atoms a full outer shell making the material non-stick enough that the acid will not wet it and therefore leave it nanosmooth after the material gets pulled out of the acid. The material will probably have such a high theoretical strength that it's better than any infinitely ductile material that could be produced.

It will have a very high strength to start with because it was etched nanosmooth, and it will be so hard that almost nothing can scratch it very much so its strength won't reduce very much with use. A dish made of it would really truly be unbreakable as a result of its high strength. According to my answer at Why is glass so breakable?, for any material, the speed two spheres of that material that are the same size must collide with each other in order to form a crack is the sheer modulus to the power of -2 times the strength to the power of 5/2 times density to the power of -1/2 times some constant, but that substance would have a strength that's a significant fraction of its sheer modulus.

Its strength will lower even less with use because it's amorphous. Also because it's so smooth, any contact edge between water, air, and that substance will be vibrating due to the dynamic equilibruim of the water's evaporation and condensation making the advancing and receding contact angle of water with it be so close together that drops of water on plates made of that substance will roll off with ease in the dishwasher.

Even drops of a liquid that has a contact angle less than 90° but doesn't completely wet it will roll off with ease until they're at locally lowest point on the surface on the underside. Because it's amorphous, it will warp with very high temperatures so another material might be best for temperatures of 2000°C.

It's perfect crystal corundum with a small fraction of its aluminum atoms replaced with silicon atoms etched nanosmooth. Corundum actually is a covalent network according to an alternate definition despite the electronegativity difference of more than 1.7 because each bond has 2 electrons localized to that bond.

Since it's a covalent network, replacing a small fraction of the aluminum atoms with silicon atoms would create random walking half antibonds some of which would random walk to the surface making it non-stick.

I think a perfect crystal of that substance can be slowly grown from a molten mixture of aluminum, silicon, and oxygen where the amount of silicon in the mixture is very small and the number of oxygen atoms is slightly less than 1.5 times the number of aluminum atoms plus the number of silicon atoms. Actually 2 crystals would be nucleated, one of that substance and one of pure silicon. That substance could actually be etched into a crucible for molten carbon(IV) nitride because it would be so non-stick.

It would probably also be a very dark substance because it would be slightly electrically conductive. Once a research group that conducts all useful research very efficiently exists, they could actually make a giant rod of the microcrystalline version of that substance lying on the ground by pouring its molten form into a mold then freezing it from the bottom at a controlled rate by laser cooling the part just under the freezing surface then chiseling it into an elevated railway.

That railway would only weather at the surface because it would be nonporous because grains wouldn't detach from other grains anywhere on their surface because the grain boundaries wouldn't be under very much stress because atoms could move across the grain boundary to release the stress caused by the different grains contracting more in a different direction because all grains are the same substance.

I think it should be considered a type of rock because it's a hard, opaque, brittle, nonshiny solid. Water could not go in and freeze cracking it.

Buildings could also be made from that material and be strong enough to support themselves and even withstand an earthquake as long as there's no sharp concave edge in them and they would also be fireproof.

Lonsdalite could in theory be much more unbreakable under the right conditions. Suppose you have a sheet of it parallel to its own cleavage plane made by fracturing it along its cleavage plane.

I think it will retain it's extremely high theoretical tensile strength even after scratching because if it goes under tension after it gets scratched, the tip of the initiated crack will propagate parallel to the surface rather than propagate further in.

If the lonsdalite had a small impurity of nitrogen atoms in it, the brittle fractured surface would also be very non-stick and low friction and since it also has a high thermal conductivity, no part of its surface would heat up very much from scratching and since it's low friction and doesn't easily heat up from scratching, it would be really slow to get scratched retaining its theoretical strength as it gets scratched.

That property is an orientation dependent property so it would not be possible to build an object out of it of any shape and have it be so unbreakable.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's hard to figure out a much better way to write my answer. I'll try to figure out a way. $\endgroup$ – Timothy Jan 15 '17 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ Paragraph breaks! Topic sentences and logical progression of sentences within each paragraph. Look at the striking difference between this post and others (or most writing for that matter). $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 15 '17 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ I had a look at this, I tried to edit it for you, I gave up. This are my suggestions: 1) Paragraphs! Every time you want to write the words "I think..." it is probably another paragraph. Also for each period, consider if it can be another paragraph. 2) If you can, avoid passive voice. 3) Prefer starting new sentences with "In addition", "Moreover", "However", and "Therefore", instead of long senteces with "and", "but" and "so". 4) Use lists (bullet points) to list things, use math expressions (LaTeX) to express math. 5) If you still have long sentences, try hemingwayapp and rewordify. $\endgroup$ – Theraot Jun 5 '17 at 2:59
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Smart materials

Decades ago I worked on some projects investigating just what we could do with materials and structures. The over all project labeled these as "smart materials", however, the details of what each of the individual idea did were quite different.

Some of the things we investigated:

Damage diagnostics

For composite materials, include in the reinforcing fibers some that could also be used as optical fibers. Then transmit carefully calibrated light through the fibers. We were able to determine stress, strain, temperature, and many other properties of the material in which the fiber was embedded. Theoretically this would allow us instant information on the state of the object / vehicle on which this material was used - including battle damage assessment.

Adaptive materials

It turns out that some materials change shape when exposed to electric currents (e.g. piezoelectric crystals). By using this property, the researchers hoped to be able to change wing shape so that the wing was always the perfect shape for the flight regime in which an aircraft was flying. There are many other possible uses for this sort of technology too.

But these materials also worked in reverse, putting strain on the material caused them to produce electric current. This would allow anything monitoring that output to know exactly what sort of load the structure experienced. There were possible applications in identifying loads beyond the design limit of the structure (good for figuring out when a vehicle required maintenance beyond what was typically required).

Special coatings

These included coatings that changed color and intensity based upon temperature, pressure, electrical signals, et al. This was very useful in the lab to determine which portions of a sample were exposed to different conditions. However, it could also be useful for adaptive camouflage.

Embedded devices

Traditionally manufactured goods possess a (dumb) structure, with every component individually isolated (engine, passenger compartment, suspension, etc.). Embedded devices was the practice of blurring the line between these different isolated entities.

Imagine sensors embedded along the exterior of the vehicle's structure for sensing enemies with other sensors embedded along the interior of the structure for self-diagnostics.

Furthermore, simple and small computer and memory units would track all of the maintenance and usage information of a vehicle. You would integrate all of the on-board sensor technology into a single access point. To find the maintenance required for each vehicle would be as simple as touching a memory tab/button. The vehicle would know what needed to be done and could tell any maintenance personnel its requirements. This alleviates the need of doing all maintenance at a single facility which was tracking that vehicle's needs.

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Neutronium may well have near perfect sound and heat conduction, and be a near perfect electrical insulator. but it would only be useful on the nano-scale.

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    $\begingroup$ small samples of neutronium are probably very strong beta emitters.. $\endgroup$ – Jasen Dec 29 '16 at 8:15

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