Obtaining Unobtainium at DARPAtech 2004

Engineers are not usually happy about using the term "unobtainium" - a reference to a material that outperforms anything known (and is therefore unobtainable).

But at DARPA, obtaining unobtainium is an everyday goal - and they are succeeding:

  • In the Stealth program DARPA developed materials that do, in fact, make aircraft invisible to radar.
  • Amorphous metals - metals without grain boundaries - promise to make ship hulls that are corrosion resistant and nonmagnetic.
  • Inexpensive titanium - new processes that may result in low cost titanium, perhaps as low as $2 per pound
In his declassified talk available on the DARPAtech 2004 website, Dr. John Main talks about The Pursuit of Unobtainium.

Here's a taste of projects under development:

  • A naturally-inspired multifunctional UAV skeleton has already been developed that combines a load-bearing structure with electrical energy storage (a micro air vehicle fuselage that is also a battery).
  • "Soft" actuation is a truly challenging problem - to gently grasp and lift heavy objects has never been reproduced in a synthetic system. DARPA's multifunctional materials program has already successfully demonstrated compliant actuators based on electro-elastomers designed to act as both extensor and flexor muscles.

Read more about Materials Science Engineering Careers and DARPA Defense Sciences Office - Ultra-Lightweight Materials.

Science fiction is, of course, replete with examples of unobtainium. Consider smart material, a wall covering that eats any graffiti written upon it. Or inexpensive talking tape short lengths of which contain wireless networking capability and speakers allowing buildings to almost build themselves (with some help from willing humans.

Can you think of other examples of "unobtainium" from sf?

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/10/2004)

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