Science fiction and fantasy media regularly include magical or exaggerated substances as essential parts of the story. In this piece, I explore my top fantasy metals that appear in movies, comics, literature, and other popular media. When starting out my research, I found an overwhelming array of fantasy metals with more showing up all the time, particularly in role-playing games. I picked eight, with the first example being more of an overarching element (of the literary kind) that depicts many general qualities of fantasy metals. An apt generalization in Entertainment Weekly explained: “All of them are shiny, all of them are rare, and all of them have some sort of ridiculous name. They tend to be impossibly strong and can withstand incredible force. Sometimes, they even have magic powers.”

Discussion of fantasy metals is pertinent to “spooky geology” in several aspects. Most disturbingly, there are a surprising number of people who believe such amazing substances are real or have real world counterparts with similar special properties. Most people are poorly versed in highly technical topics of chemistry and physics. It’s not difficult to find real-world references to exaggerated or magical inorganic substances connected to some amazing claim, or being sold with the promise of special powers. Fact is blurred by popular fiction.

A useful way to inoculate an audience from falling for a scam or pseudoscience is to show examples and explain what’s really going on.

Educators use discussion of fantasy metals to teach about chemistry and physics. Students can examine the fictional depictions to work out what is and isn’t possible and why. Because the periodic table of elements shows the consistency and predictability of the properties of earth materials, examining fantasy metals can help students put fundamentals of chemistry into understandable context in a fun and engaging way.

Unobtainium

Most metals in fictional plots fall under the trope of “Unobtainium” – a term used not only in fiction, but in engineering and in general popular culture as a substance that is impractical or impossible to get, thus, unobtainable. In the extreme sense, the term (or an alternate name for it) is used to represent something that is wished for but doesn’t exist. In science fiction, the unobtainable substance is typically needed to remove real-world physical restrictions, such as to make faster-than-light travel possible, to overcome gravity, or to make objects nearly immune to damage. With creative license, fantasy metals can do anything you need them to, or they can fail dramatically for added interest.

In this sense, Unobtainium, and all other fantasy metals, are handy plot devices called “MacGuffins” which are objects, devices, or events that are necessary to the story and the motivation of characters. The MacGuffin is often the trigger for or center of the story, though, if removed from the story, it would have no intrinsic interest on its own. The fantasy metal (or stone, which is an upcoming future post), is frequently dangerous if handled improperly, or has some other bizarre quality at least to some characters.

Unobtanium as depicted in the movie Avatar was a rare compound used as an energy conductor that enabled interstellar commerce. The magnetic field was so intense that it disrupted human functions. The name was used explicitly as “Unobtainium” but it appears that was not originally intended – used as a placeholder, they just could not come up with a suitable name.

“Unobtainium” in other contexts has some fun alternate names: Unaffordium, Veryrarium, and, possibly my favorite, Bolognium, that strongly indicates a skepticism of its existence. Another great example of the Unobtainium trope is Eludium or Iludium – with the nifty name indicating that the material is illusive or eludes attempts to find it. Recall that Marvin the Martian tried to use an Iludium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator to blow up earth in Looney Tunes episodes.

Oh Goody, he found the iludilum.

The following examples of fantasy metals are often serving as versions of Unobtainum and as MacGuffins. They sound remarkably interchangeable but some have unique properties and interesting, and ever more convoluted, back stories. Many also appear in complex related storylines or transcend their most popular literary context to show up in games or other media with slightly different spellings or properties. Because they are magic and not following natural laws, the rules are loose.

Adamantium

“Adamant” has historically been used to refer to a substance (often a stone) equivalent to diamond in hardness. Applied to a metal, it is a nearly indestructible steel alloy. Derived from Greek Mythology, adamantine is used repeatedly in myth and legends from ancient times to the present. Adding the suffix “-ium” was a typical way to create a elemental name. So, eventually, the world was gifted with the fictional metal Adamantium. The name was first used as a product brand name in 1912 for a non-corrosive bronze listed in the journal Mechanical Engineer. In 1941, the name was used in a short story called “Devil’s Powder” as the composition of a bullet. But the most famous Adamantium was forged in the Marvel comics and cinematic universe where the dark shiny grey metal – able to be honed to a sharp edge that can easily penetrate other metals – became the skeleton and claws of Wolverine. Marvel later introduced variants of Adamantium that could be damaged by sufficiently powerful opposing forces. This version was similar to the real element osmium, the densest metal and part of the platinum group. In the X-Men, adamantium comes from meteors.

The DC Comics universe had their own version of a super-strong metal but it was called Promethium, which is historically derived from the same ideas of ancient Greek mythology. However, Promethium is a real element, making it problematic for a fictional universe to utilize in storytelling.

Vibranium

Let’s hang out in the Marvel Universe for a while longer and discuss Vibranium. Vibranium has the ability to absorb, store, and then release great amounts of kinetic energy. It can absorb sound, create earthquakes, and generally annoy other lifeforms. The original Vibranium also came from meteors and was mined in the fictional land of Wakanda. It became associated with the characters Black Panther and Captain America. Additional versions of Vibranium appeared in story lines, including an artificial and a “sentient” variety. One variation was called the “anti-metal” because it could cut through any known metal.

Vibranium has been given more credence outside of the fictional realm by relating it to real substances. In the book The Secret Science of Superheroes, Mark J. Whiting compares Vibranium to existing and potentially new elements and finds it’s not that far beyond plausibility, that it could be “a high-entropy shape-memory alloy composite, reinforced with a ceramic”, which makes it currently out of reach of current materials technology, buy maybe not future technology.

In 2016, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies developed a lightweight carbon fiber composite material they called Vibranium. From what I can gather, there have been attempts to trademark the name for several products of all kinds but the legality of these trademarks is unclear to me.

In 2022, a viral video circulated with claims that “electric” rocks were found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The deceptive video appeared to show rocks that could produce electric sparks. Confusion arose with the mining of coltan in this region, which is ore containing rare metals niobium and tantalum. Commentators claimed that “real world vibranium” had been found, noting the similarity to the story of the fictional Wakanda. See more on the Electric Rocks hoax here. This is a good example of how entirely wrong ideas sound credible and bleed into the news because of our famililarity from fiction.

Kryptonite

Kryptonite has even more relation to real-world chemistry as well as having a well-known reputation in popular culture. Moving over to the DC comic and cinematic universe, Kryptonite was a MacGuffin in the Superman saga. In it’s iconic green mineral form, it originated from the planet Krypton and fell to earth as a meteorite. First mentioned on the Superman radio show in 1943, it appeared in the comics much later in 1949 to add drama to the story as a useful danger to the hero. Kryptonite didn’t seem all that rare, however, since many of Superman’s enemies managed to have it on hand. Its power was to disrupt Superman in unpredictable ways but not regular humans. Different forms of Kryptonite, in all sorts of interesting colors and states, have different effects. The “-ite” suffix indicates that it’s a compound, not an element, although the “-ite” may be a throwback to its appearance as a meteorite. Kryptonium, what we might surmise is the elemental name, was only ever used outside the official canon as representing the element of which Kryptonite is the ore.

Krypton, however, is a real element, number 36 on the periodic table, a noble gas discovered in 1898. Its properties have nothing to do with its fictional namesake.

The formula for Kryptonite was said to have been written on a container of it in the movie Superman Returns. This formula, minus fluoride, matches that of a mineral recently discovered in Serbia called Jadarite (sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide). Several Superfans have attempted to pin down the probable location of Kryptonite on the period table of elements but, being a compound, you can’t.

Even more than Unobtainium, Kryptonite has become so well-known that it is used in popular terminology, primarily as a metaphor for the one weakness of an otherwise all-powerful character (AKA, the “Achilles Heel” trope).

Orichalcum

Pronounced like “OR-eh-CAL-cum”, Orichalcum (also as orichalcon, orihalcon or orichalc) is known as the precious metal of the fictional Atlantis, second only to gold. Mentioned by Plato in the Critias dialogue, it was legendarily mined in Atlantis where the most important buildings were coated with it, making them shine with a red glow. Orichalcum appears in several ancient writings and means “mountain copper” in Greek. Like the Atlantis myth, bits of truth have been exaggerated into a fantastical tale. Ancient writers were not clear what orichalcum was. Coins and ingots have been found that are likely made of what is referred to as orichalcum. These are comprise of 80% copper and 20% zinc with some traces of lead, tin and other metals. Other items that may be referred to as Orichalcum are pure copper or copper alloys, bronze, or brass. The name may also have been applied to the mineral chalcopyrite. The mix of metals resulted in Orichalcum being malleable, but stronger than copper and more resistant to tarnishing.

It’s not clear if the ancients obtained orichalcum as an ore or if they processed it. In Ancient Aliens, season 12, episode 2, the ridiculous commentators suggest that ingots of Orichalcum were made using an advanced technology (in Atlantis, of course) and given to the people by extraterrestrials. Sure…

Orichalcum remains a popular metal for fantasy media where it is employed as a “do-anything MacGuffin”. Its special properties can be strength, high value, super resistance, room temperature superconductivity, and sometimes it even floats. Maybe it’s better named Versatilium or Swissarmyknifium.

Dilithium

Star Trek’s infamous Dilithium, a crystal used in warp drives (to travel faster than the speed of light), has a healthy real and fictional scientific background. In reality, dilithium is, literally, two covalently bonded lithium atoms, which exists in nature as a gas. In the Starfleet ships, dilithium was a metallic crystal considered to be a unique element used to regulate the matter-antimatter reaction. Using it up resulted in decrystalization. Used improperly, it could cause the formation of a unstable wormhole.

There is a rumor that lithium was first proposed in the script but natural elements can pose creative problems down the line. The quality of rarity is always useful for fantasy metals. Dilithium was only found on a few planets in the galaxy.

A periodic table appearing in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, showed Dilithium as having an atomic weight of 87 which places it between rubidium and strontium. However, its characteristics were not following normal natural convention.

Sometimes scientific finds sound a lot like fictional concepts. In 2012, researchers were working on “a fusion cell using deuterium and a stable isotope of the metal lithium in a crystalline structure” that could aid space flight. They compared it to Dilithium crystals.

Mithril

This is my favorite fantasy metal, and, it’s also the most widely pilfered one. Enthusiasts of the Tolkien legendarium know Mithril plays a key part (if, still, as a MacGuffin) in the history of Middle Earth. Mithril is not unique, however, to Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Spelled in various ways, with comparable properties, it appears in many RPGs and media including D&D and the Warcraft series. However, Tolkien created the word from his invented Elvish to mean “grey brilliance”. Mithril, in general, is a bright silver metal most obviously similar to titanium in color, corrosion resistance, and light weight. Gandalf, via Tolkien, describes it as able to be worked like copper and polished like glass or silver, but it did not tarnish. It was light, but harder than tempered steel with supernatural properties to block blades.

Among the important items in Middle Earth made of mithril were the chainmail shirt given to Bilbo by Thorin, the dwarf king, that was later handed down to Frodo for his own perilous journey. Mithril formed the ring of power, Nenya, that was worn by Galadriel. It appears much earlier in the history, particularly for use in a stunning, shiny elven ship called Vingilot. Mithril is a huge player in the history of dwarves of Khazad-dûm who mined the ore in Moria – the last remaining source of the metal in the world. A community of elves living nearby were on good terms with the dwarves, crafting great objects out of mithril. The ore ran deep, and the dwarves were greedy to have the increasingly rarer material. They mined too deep and released a very ancient and nasty Balrog, which halted mining and eventually caused the dwarves to abandon the underground city. An alloy of mithril is used on the door to Moria, the gates of Durin, visible only in starlight. Mithril was later used to restore the glory of the white city of Gondor after the fall of Sauron.

Red mercury

The final fantasy metal is the modern mythical red mercury. Its history is deliberately confusing as it was likely used for disinformation purposes by the Soviet Union during the Cold War to suggest they were in possession of a high-temperature superconductor and key ingredient for nuclear weapons. Originally, it may have been an alternative name for a nuclear isotope. Another claim that appeared in the mid-1990s was that red mercury was a shortcut way to enrich uranium. Anyone who sought red mercury was clearly up to no good, so it was useful to “sell” in order to catch terrorists. It eventually became a contemporary legend as a mysterious material that could cause huge explosions with a small amount, like a miniature neutron bomb. The founder of the neutron bomb, Samuel Cohen, claimed that it was a real chemical perfected by the Soviets to make small fusion bombs, but that the US government was suppressing the information. This claim was never confirmed and the International Atomic Energy Agency denies it existed.

A different type of red mercury is described as a magical healing elixir with the power to also summon djinn. Medieval alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (of dubious origin) said the most precious elixirs were hidden in the pyramids. In recent translation, this evolved into the idea that red mercury was found in the mouths of mummified pharaohs. Various homemade media has popularized this and other myths of red mercury.

Social media spreads these tales to a new generation even though the substances doesn’t make sense. Red mercury is described as a red liquid. However, other stand-ins may be mercury antimony oxide, or cinnabar, which is mercury sulfide, a genuine red-colored ore of mercury used to make vermillion pigment. The tiny grain of truth propels the continued circulation of exaggerated tales by very insistent and credulous storytellers.

You can still find dark web/black market sites claiming to sell it. Back in 2004, three men were arrested in the UK for trying to buy it from an undercover reporter. One of the men claimed he thought it was a chemical to wash discolored money. The men were acquitted because red mercury doesn’t exist so it was not actually a crime.

So there you have it, my choice of top fantasy metals. If I missed your favorite fantasy metal, please share in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Fantasy metals – not all Bolognium

  1. First, let me say that I’ve been following your work since the “Doubtful News” days, and I’ve always found it interesting, informative and well-written. Second, let me say that this is, as is usual for you, an interesting, informative and well-written run-down of the more popular fantastical metals.

    But…my inner geek pedant has been triggered. (Just to be clear, these are all geeky nit-picks, not serious criticisms of the piece.)

    Adamantium: I’m not aware of any source, in the X-Men comics or elsewhere in Marvel Comics or movies, that claims a meteoric origin for Adamantium. I believe the “official” canon is that it’s an alloy, with the exact formula and process for creating it being a highly classified government secret, and the process used to create it is incredibly expensive and difficult. Canonically, Wolverine’s claws and bones are laced with “true” Adamantium, which can withstand being at Ground Zero of a nuclear detonation. Other occurrences of Adamantium in the comics are often less durable, which is usually explained by them being examples of “secondary” Adamantium, less durable compositions of the alloy.

    Vibranium: This one is particularly convoluted. In the original Marvel Comics, the name was used for two completely different metals. Wakandan Vibranium can absorb “vibrations”, including sounds, and sometimes (depending on the writer) other forms of kinetic energy and/or electromagnetic energy. In early depictions, it wasn’t exceptionally durable. The “anti-metal” version of Vibranium is Antarctic Vibranium, found exclusively in the Savage Land, a lost world of dinosaurs and fantastic creatures hidden in an Antarctic valley and home to the Tarzan knockoff Ka-Zar. It doesn’t “cut through” metal – it emits vibrations that cause other metals to liquify. Later writers and editors tried to reconcile the two wildly different versions by stating that Antarctic and Wakandan Vibranium are two different “isotopes” of Vibranium. Some writers and editors also placed it as an element in the hypothetical “trans-uranic island of stability.” As Ka-Zar and the Savage Land fell into deep obscurity, and the Black Panther and Wakanda became increasingly popular, the “anti-metal” version has just kind of drifted out of continuity. The MCU so far has completely ignored Antarctic Vibranium, while giving other properties to Wakandan Vibranium (it’s super-durable, it’s an energy source, it’s a super-conductor, it’s a computational medium, it mutates plants and animals, it can give you super-powers, it’s a dessert topping, it’s a floor wax).

    Captain America: In the comics, Captain America’s shield is a unique alloy of “true” Adamantium and Vibranium that’s never been successfully duplicated. The Adamantium makes it virtually indestructible, while the Vibranium absorbs and dissipates energy and impacts. That latter property is sometimes invoked to justify why when Cap blocks a punch from the Hulk with his shield, the impact doesn’t just shatter him and send him flying (the comic version of Captain America is supposed to be the “peak of human potential” but not truly superhuman).

    Anyway, sorry for the long nitpicky comics geek digression.

    1. I expected as much. Not being a fan of superhero lit or cinema, I figured I would not get the specifics correct. I just am not steeped in the lore. Thanks for providing the details, maybe I bit off more than I could chew with this one.

      Edit: I think your comments prove how “loose” the rules around fantasy metals are.

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