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In search of 'unobtainium'

Matjaž Matošec - 30 March 2017

You won’t find it in the periodic table but may remember it from the 2009 film Avatar. Unobtainium: possessing all the properties except the all-important one.

About the author

Mr Matjaž Matošec
Matjaž Matošec is Editor of Stainless Steel World News and Manager of the Stainless Steel World Conference.
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Have you ever heard of unobtainium? No? Well, no worries, I hadn’t either – until some weeks ago. During its recent meeting, the Steering Committee of the Stainless Steel World Conference was working hard to put together a quality programme for this year’s jubilee 10th edition of the event, and steering the committee towards meeting this objective, I had to remain alert so as to ensure that the discussion did not go astray. At some point, the committee members began repeatedly referring to something which sounded like one of the chemical elements, but I simply couldn’t work out what they were talking about. Titanium, vanadium, uranium…? Feeling that I was missing something important, I simply had to ask the assembly about the mysterious word, and their answer was no less intriguing: unobtainium.

So what is unobtainium? You won’t find it in the periodic table, but may have heard it mentioned in James Cameron’s 2009 epic science fiction film Avatar, in reference to a room-temperature superconductor mined on the fictional moon Pandora. In reality, its chemical composition is fluid and adaptable to every situation, while the list of its properties is endless, endowing it with almost magical qualities. Unobtainium may be ‘magical’, but for a different reason, namely its only stable characteristic: availability, or, more precisely, lack thereof. As suggested by its name, unobtainium is very difficult to obtain, making it an engineering nightmare. Wikipedia defines it as “any fictional, extremely rare, costly, or impossible material, or (less commonly) device needed to fulfill a given design for a given application. The properties of any particular unobtainium depend on the intended use.” In short, in the world of engineering, where the term originates, unobtainium is used to describe any material or product whose immediate availability is limited.

To address this major issue, this year’s Stainless Steel World Conference will feature an open forum entitled Availability is a key material property. An expert panel of end users, EPC contractors, manufacturers, distributors and fabricators will engage in a discussion with the audience to come up with some ideas as to how to make non-standard material grades and special products more readily available.

In the ideal world and somewhat paradoxically, unobtainium would be eradicated from this planet, becoming ‘obtainium’ and as such nothing special – at least in terms of availability. But as this is highly unlikely to happen and many engineering projects are destined to face delays as a result of it, unobtainium will continue to feature prominently in end users’ vocabulary.

Are you interested in becoming a guest blogger on the SSW website? If so, send me an email to discuss options.

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