I was thinking about Avatar the other day after the recent Cirque du Soleil show and it got me thinking. Aside from the thrill of scientific discovery, is the inherent premise just slightly barmy? I mean surely it'd be cheaper to just analyze the composition of Unobtainium on Earth and find a way to synthesize it in a lab rather than mounting five year missions to colonize a planet in another goddamn solar system. Space-trucking ain't cheap, especially over interstellar distances, and since the current cost of sending anything into space is already tens of thousands of dollars per pound, I can't imagine they're making much money off of Unobtainium after you account for the cost of the crew, the equipment, and the transit time.

So is interstellar macguffin mining as impractical as I'm beginning to think it is, or am I just overestimating the cost of space travel IN THE FUTURE! ?

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the only company owning labs able to do the analysis happens to also be the main space transportation company, and they figured that they make more profit from mining (because the higher prize can support higher profits). $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 8 '16 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk: But as long as they're the only people able to do the synthesis, they can still charge whatever the market will bear, without the overhead costs of space travel. (But "what the market will bear" might not be much, considering that power line loss runs around 6%.) Only way it makes sense is to turn the logic around: space travel/colonization is the goal, mining just helps defray some of the cost. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 8 '16 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ You might try asking on Science Fiction & Fantasy. This kind of thing is discussed there all the time. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 8 '16 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf -- room temp. superconductors would have many applications more valuable than reducing grid transmission loss. None that I can think of would justify interstellar manned shipping which would be ridiculously expensive with any non-FTL tech. we've imagined. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Oct 9 '16 at 3:13
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    $\begingroup$ We've actually gone over this subject quite a lot $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Oct 9 '16 at 17:06

Surprisingly, we can't just synthesize everything.

Some compounds are simply hard to create by a faster method. This is true at the molecular level, but if you include any macroscopic effects it becomes quite obvious. We haven't figured out how 9 women can make a baby in a month.

This effect is very visible in the world of art forensics. Forgers go through great lengths to attempt to make their paintings appear authentic at the microscopic level. Particularly difficult for them is "aging" the paintings so that the diffusion and decomposition of compounds matches what would be expected for a painting so old. Varnishes and other organic compounds are really hard to fake. So much so that forgers are known to cannibalize old paintings to get the pre-aged materials for their forgeries!

Another region to consider is the world of proteins. Proteins are terribly difficult to synthesize because the process of making them is a a non-equilibrium process. The protien is constantly moving and bending while it is being created, and that is essential for it folding into the right shape.

So it could be that Unobtanium simply has properties which are hard to synthesize. We don't ever see what they do with it. Maybe it's being crushed up and snorted for male virility, like rhinoceros horns

Interestingly enough, a group of scientists has recently developed a process for creating artificial rhino horns with the correct properties and genetic signature so they're hard to tell apart from the real ones. They plan to flood the market so that there's no money in killing rhinos for their horns anymore! I guess it all depends on what properties you are looking at. We successfully synthesized rhino horn such that science has a hard time telling the difference between it and the real thing. However, the question remains: will the synthetic rhino horn also have an effect on virility? Maybe there's some Unobtanium like properties in the real horn that we don't know about yet!

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually the only effect rhino horn has on virility is the placebo effect. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 9 '16 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk Ruining my fun! (I agree that science has shown no difference between its effect and the placebo effect, but when talking about mining Unobtanium on distant plants, I felt I could get away with a story that sounded a little less final.) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Oct 9 '16 at 19:47

Possible reasons for un-manufacturable materials

I choose to use un-manufacturable rather than un-obtainable because the very premise of the film Avatar film and others is that the material in question is just that: obtainable. But that is just a pet peeve...

Processes that we cannot duplicate

There are many things that we do not yet know how to synthesize. There are also many naturally occurring processes we cannot mimic. Photosynthesis for instance, one of the oldest processes for life, we cannot mimic that one yet. If there is a substance that requires a specific process to be created, but we cannot mimic or "domesticate" the process (compare for instance getting silk from silk worms), then the material would be un-manufacturable.

Exotic isotopes

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” — Carl Sagan

Nearly every basic element, excepting only Hydrogen and some Helium, did not exist right after the beginning of the universe. Everything from Helium to uranium was created in the core of stars. When these stars then went nova and exploded, these elements were scattered, until they coalesced again to form planets, moons, asteroids... us.

The ratios of different elements can vary depending on what kind of star they were created in. Which means that while our local neighborhood may perhaps not have produced some isotopes, maybe others have. Maybe we will find entire asteroids and planets where super-heavy element from the Island of Stability occur naturally.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nuclear synthesis is the process of slamming atoms together to make new ones. It is how plutonium and actinium and all the transuranics are made. It is too expensive to be used to make gold but FAR easier than interstellar travel. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Oct 9 '16 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DonaldHobson Yes, and you either get constrictingly small — but pure — amount of it, or you get loads of it, along with waste heat, radioactive byproducts/waste and a heap load of other issues, such as the international community breathing down your neck wanting to make sure you do not do any funny stuff with that reactor of yours. Space travel need not at all be that hard, especially not if you can bring back quantities measuring in tonnes. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Oct 10 '16 at 7:16

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