Materials Technology

materials technology
Image from Bernd Helfert

Terragen civilizations use a huge range of materials in hylotech, ranging from reliable standbys pre-dating the first civilizations of Old Earth to entirely new classes of materials invented mere centuries ago. Though forms of exotic matter are essential to some basic elements of Terragen civilization, such as the Wormhole Network, reactionless drives, and such constructions as Banks Orbitals or larger megascale projects, the production and use of such materials is the realm of transapient entities. In the day to day experience of sapient beings in the Terragen sphere, it is the myriad forms of matter composed of atoms that predominate.

Basic Construction Materials

The most common building materials in the modern age are those that may be made from abundant elements and that are easy to make with simple dry nano or bionano. Elements in the "top ten" (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, silicon, magnesium, iron, sulphur, aluminum, and calcium) are highly favoured. Helium, neon, and argon are noble gases, and as such cannot be induced to form useful compounds. Therefore, though as abundant as the rest, they are not considered in a tally of the "top ten" for construction purposes.

The most ubiquitous materials in Terragen technology are a class of materials called "diamondoid", all of them constructed from elemental carbon. There are several reasons why diamondoid is so widely used. Firstly, carbon is the fourth most common element in the universe, and of the "top ten" is one of only three (the others being iron and aluminum) that can be used as a construction material in its elemental form. Secondly, its most common compounds are gases or liquids at the temperatures used by Terragen technology. This is a great aid to speed in nanofacturing. Thirdly, the carbon-carbon bond is extremely strong, and diamondoid products have a very good strength to weight ratio.

Basic diamondoid is simply carbon in its diamond crystalline form. Since the crystals are made of the same element, in a pattern that is simply repeated indefinitely in all directions, it may be created in bulk with simple unsupervised nano. The basic material is transparent to visible light, though a high refractive index severely distorts any images. It can also be made in a variety of colours and with any degree of transparency from clear to black. Unfortunately, although it is extremely hard, simple diamondoid has very good octahedral cleavage, and is subject to shattering. On Old Earth before the advent of nanotechnology, when crystal diamond was regarded as a precious gem due to its rarity, jewellers used the brittleness of diamond to shape their material in creative ways. The cheapest and simplest way around simple diamondoid's tendency to cleave or shatter is to create a form that imitates the mineral called carbonado. Like the natural mineral, nanofactured carbonado is microcrystalline, and therefore although it retains diamond's natural hardness it is much more difficult to shatter. Natural carbonado is black, as is the cheapest grade of nanofactured carbonado, but a wide range of colours and degrees of transparency can be created by tuning the nanofacturing process. Carbonado is used in the simplest bulk applications, or by persons or polities with the fewest resources, and its use is often unfairly regarded as a "poverty" material.

As with many other innately brittle materials, the properties of diamond crystal are greatly improved by incorporating it in a matrix containing other materials. This tactic was first produced by evolution in the hard parts of presapient bionts. It accounts for the utility, even today, of such materials as bone, tooth, and shell despite the innate tendency of their mineral constituents to shatter. With diamondoid, the most common solution has been to lace the diamond crystal with buckyfibre. Since buckyfibre is also made of carbon, this increases the complexity of the process but does not increase its materials cost. Care must be taken in the process to ensure that the buckyfibre is thoroughly encased in the diamond and is not exposed on the surface, as some of the derived fullerenes are toxic to bionts. In addition to lacing it with other components, diamondoid products are often given a complex foamed microstructure, comparable to wood. Though this even further complicates nanofacturing, the resulting material is very lightweight and much more flexible than pure diamond crystal.

Where tensile strength is required, as in beanstalks or rotating habs, monomolecular carbon or buckytube are unmatched. Modern structures of this sort would simply be impossible to create without them.

In a typical Terragen atmosphere, any diamondoid is vulnerable to burning. It is also vulnerable to simple destructive nano that combines the material with ambient oxygen. Since such nano can run and even replicate on the heat released by the burning of carbon and does not require a power source, diamondoid structures can be quickly broken down into carbon dioxide gas. In controlled form this property simplifies the shaping and cutting of diamondoid structures, but does make them very vulnerable to accidents or to terrorist or military attacks.

Alternatives to the simple diamondoids are other relatively simple minerals made of common elements. Quartz (silicon dioxide) is extremely common in this application. Though not so hard as diamondoids, quartzoids are more resistant to shattering. They are also impervious to fire in an oxygen bearing atmosphere, and to unpowered nano attacks in almost any environment. The cost of nanofacturing quartzoids is greater than for diamondoid. This is partly because silicon is less than one seventh as abundant as carbon (though still in the top ten) and partly because two elements are much more complicated to handle than one, but it is mostly because the source materials are solid, and working with solids slows the rate of construction considerably. Quartzoids can still be shattered, just like diamondoid, though less easily. The solutions (cryptocrystalline structure, foaming, and addition of a matrix material) are much the same as for diamond. Many terragens find structures of cryptocrystalline quartz, otherwise known as agate, to be very attractive. Quartzoids, like diamondoids, may be given a wide variety of colours and degrees of transparency.

Corundumoid (aluminum oxide) is the third major crystalline structural material. The hardness of aluminum oxides is second only to that of diamond, and they have the additional virtue that, like quartzoid products, they are resistant to high temperatures, and are not vulnerable to burning or simple nano attack in an oxidizing atmosphere. Because of its resistance to damage and high temperatures, it is a common form of computronium in vec. Like diamond, corundum was valued on Old Earth as a precious gem (in the form of rubies or sapphires), and it is sometimes called 'sapphiroid' after the gem material. The colour and transparency of corundumoids is, as for the diamondoids and quartzoids, variable, and may be black, green, blue, yellow, red, or whatever else is desired.

A wide range of other simple crystalline materials is used in modern construction applications. Calcite, (calcium carbonate) especially in the form of aragonite, remains as popular as it was on Old Earth (as synthetic re-creations of the coral, shell, pearl, marble, and limestone used as a gem or construction material in ancient times). So too is calcium phosphate, which was formerly used in the form of ivory or bone. Often these are grown using bionano techniques. Titanium carbide, silicon nitride, silicon carbide, and some other simple covalently bonded compounds using boron and tungsten are also used in much the same way as diamondoid.

Ceramics are ubiquitous in modern construction. Though they are much more difficult to produce by nanofacture than simple crystalline compounds, they also have greater range and versatility. They may be structural members, tiles, or electrically conductive wiring in a typical modern structure. Most ordinary buildings have a large ceramic component, as do vehicles and common appliances. Ceramics often have a higher perceived value than simple diamondoid or corundumoid, since though still relatively cheap they are more difficult to produce in bulk quantities than simple diamondoid.

Biologically derived materials such as wood, horn, or chitin are still very popular in construction, for the same properties that made them valuable in pre-Industrial times. In biont homes, a silica-impregnated cellulose-lignin construct, very much like the substance once produced by bamboo, is highly valued, since it is light, flexible, attractive, and an excellent insulator both against extreme temperatures and against electromagnetic effects. It is widely used as an element in hab construction, even by non-biont clades. This and similar products, once they became common in the 2nd century a.t., caused that period to come to be called the Age of Wood, just as earlier times were sometimes referred to as the Age of Plastics. Such materials remain extremely popular today, and historians often say that modern Terragen civilization remains in the Age of Wood. Many of the day to day materials an ordinary biont person may encounter are indeed of the same wood, leather, stone, ivory, horn, bone, and shell that a pre-technological human baseline might find familiar, even if the forms and uses of the actual items would be quite bewildering.

The remaining common construction materials are metals: aluminum of course, but even more so steel and other alloys of iron. Though it is quite heavy relative to many other modern materials, iron is the ninth most common element in the universe. Nickel and chromium, though not in the top ten, are also quite abundant, and widely used. The properties of metallic bonds are such, in any case, that no covalently bonded material can match the quality of a good metal in certain applications, especially where ductility, conductivity, or a metallic sheen is desirable for practical or aesthetic reasons. The density of these metals also makes them good shields against radiation, and outside of an oxidizing atmosphere iron is an excellent shield against nano attacks or accidents (it even resists clarketech attacks based on nucleosynthesis, since iron and all elements beyond consume energy rather than release it in nuclear reactions). As with diamondoid, the quality of iron alloys is greatly improved by nanofacturing techniques; this provides hardness or strength to weight ratios which would have astounded the inhabitants of Old Earth.

Other Materials

Amorphous (covalently bonded but non-crystalline) materials such as various sorts of glass may be manufactured using nanotech, but it is often simpler to use other methods. Opal is another popular material, usually created with basic biotech. These and other amorphous materials are often preferred by artists because of the fact that nanotech cannot precisely duplicate a piece.

It is common to manufacture various artificial duplicates of natural minerals other than the simpler compounds like silica, diamond or corundum. Most of these are much more difficult to make, either because they require less common elements or because their crystal structures and therefore their nanofacturing requirements are complex. These include various phyllosilicates such as mica, which are useful when a hard but flexible membrane is required, and a range of other minerals which are found in various sorts of rock. Some inosilicates such as jadeite (which requires only sodium, aluminum, silicon, and oxygen) are particularly valuable, since although they are not as hard as diamondoid or corundum they have a natural resistance to shattering that those simpler minerals lack, and because they are attractive materials in and of themselves. Tasteful use of jadeite in the construction of one's dwelling is considered a mark of sophistication in much of the Terragen sphere.

The rarer metals such as silver, platinum, iridium, osmium, and gold are highly valued in the present age, for the same reasons that they always have been — their relatively low cosmic abundance, and their natural aesthetic appeal. Artificial nucleosynthesis or advanced clarketech "alchemical" techniques can create these elements, but that is nearly as expensive as the nanosifting processes, since creating any element heavier than iron requires significant energy inputs. The heaviest elements, scarcer than gold or uranium, are always more economical to create in this way, though unfortunately most of them are radioactive and cannot be used in commonplace items. Regardless of their origin, rare metals are much more widely available than in the days when their only source was in naturally concentrated ores. Still, these materials are employed most often as decoration, or in specialized technological devices.

Of course, the structural materials of Old Earth, such as plastic, glass, cement, wood, leather-like substances, rubber, plaster, stucco, traditional ceramics, and old fashioned metallic alloys can all be produced with nanotech or bionanotech. In many cases they are greatly improved by attention to microstructure. In many cultures, producing these the "old fashioned way" (anything from handcrafts to late Information Age biotech) is preferred for reasons of aesthetics or status.

As during the Industrial Age, simple hydrocarbon polymers (plastics) are ubiquitous, though more often as surfaces and casings than as major structural elements. Because they are very cheap to make (using as they do the commonest elements) and not very durable compared to some of their alternatives, they are generally not highly valued, however, and are therefore employed sparingly and discreetly in personal dwellings.

Many small items, from hand-held devices to vehicles, and many surfaces, are coated with "smart" materials which use nanotech to heal small scratches and gouges, display pictures, change colour or texture, and so on. Similarly, shape memory materials are used in some specialized applications. A few of these are metal alloys, but most are advanced organics or composites. Fully programmable and responsive shapeshifting items or surfaces are of course many times more expensive than inert objects, and are somewhat less durable and more vulnerable to breakdowns (though of course very resilient by Information Age standards).

Where windows are required, or where a large area needs to be enclosed, aerogels are commonly used. In many cases these are based on transparent diamondoid for greater strength, but for a variety of reasons they may be based on silica or other materials.

The Muuh and other species which use lower temperature technologies have a well developed set of technologies using various ices and clathrates. These are generally not well known or widely used by Terragens.

  • Ablation; Ablative - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Lo tech to hi tech cooling process in which heat is carried away from an object as the flow of a fluid (e.g. air) blows away the hot, melted or vapourized outer layers of the object.
  • Ablative Armour  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Any armour that protects against beam or HE weapons by ablating, or vapourizing, as it is hit, dissipating the destructive effect of the weapon. Because ablative armour is soon eroded it is not much use in a sustained firefight. Includes soft, hard, laminated, reactive, and smart ablatives.
  • Ablative Shielding  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Most space and interstellar probes and vessels use some form of ablative heat shields; their outer surface is coated with heat-dissipating shielding that evaporates or burns away upon impact with relativistic particles (for interstellar vessels) or during atmospheric entry at high speed. Ablative shielding is also used as a defense against beam and particle weapons.
  • Adamant  - Text by Stephen Inniss
    A mixture of carbon allotropes in which the carbon-carbon bonds are carefully arranged through nanotech mechanochemistry to confer greater hardness, toughness, and flexibility than that of standard diamondoid.
  • Aerovac foam  - Text by John Edds
    Aerostatic Vacuum-Pneumatic Cell Foam, a material that is often used in vacuum dirigibles and other large-scale buoyant vehicles and structures.
  • Alloy  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    A metallic element modified by the addition of one or more other elements ('dumb' alloy) or by the addition of nanotech devices ('smart' alloy).
  • Asteroid Mining, Belt Mining  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev, additional comments by Steve Bowers
    The process of extracting useful minerals and other substances from asteroids.
  • BAESFTLA (Extensible Matter)  - Text by John Edds
    Biaxially Extensible Scrolling-Folds and Telescopic-Lamellae Architecture.
  • Carbon Nanotube  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Elongated fullerene carbon molecule in a tubular configuration. Nanotubes are cylinders arranged from a single layer of carbon atoms. They are are 10 times stronger than, and have a fraction of the weight of, steel.
  • Cargo Gel  - Text by Todd Drashner
    Utility fog based device used for transporting cargo in a wide range of environments from planetary surfaces to interstellar spac
  • Ceramic Engineering  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev, based on the original by Robert J. Hall
    The science and technology of the processing of ceramic materials.
  • Corundumoid  - Text by Stephen Inniss
    Corundum-like materials, analogous to diamondoid but based on corundum (aluminum oxide, or Al2O3) in various forms.
  • Diamondoid  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Diamond-like; chemical structures or systems (especially nanomachines as envisioned originally by Eric K. Drexler) based on diamond derivatives and/or stiff carbon bonds.
  • Duct Tape 2.0  - Text by Sethbord
    Commonly used roll of reusable tape.
  • Effector Frame  - Text by Todd Drashner
    Type of handtech device using utility fog based 'limbs'. Often used by sophonts working in non-angelnet conditions to generate a variable number of limbs, 'smart' anchor lines, grippers, etc.
  • Exotic Atoms - Text by Stephen Inniss
    A term used for matter that is not composed of the usual protons, neutrons and electrons but that forms analogous structures. The constituent particles of monopolium/magmatter are an example. Some such "atoms" may be said to form "molecules" or analogues of metals or ionic compounds and may be used in the construction of such things as Banks Orbitals.
  • Fancloth  - Text by Terrafamilia
    Material which uses molecular scale engineering to allow flight.
  • Fullerene  - Text by Stephen Inniss
    Any molecule composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube, as opposed to forms of carbon such as graphite or diamond which make extended networks that lead to crystals, or to amorphous forms of carbon such as soot.
  • Fullerite - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Atomically precise fullerene-like material, contains magmatter elements that greatly enhance performance. Widely used by some ISOs.
  • Magmatter  - Text by Luke Campbell with some additions by Adam Getchell, Todd Drashner, Stephen Inniss, Steve Bowers
    Exotic, hyperstrong and hyperdense matter composed of various monopole particles.
  • Materials Science - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    The study and application of the nature and properties of various materials, including alloys, ceramics, composites, gels, membranes, polymers, synthetics, and biological materials, as well as completely neohylogenic nano materials, on the macro, micro, nano, and pico scale.
  • Mattercache  - Text by Todd Drashner
    The stores of feedstock matter maintained on a ship or habitat for use as building material, whether for standard operations or emergency repairs.
  • Metallurgical Engineering - Text by M. Alan Kazlev based on original by Robert J. Hall
    The fabrication, processing, refining, and utilization of metals and alloys, including both alloys made from naturally occurring metals, and an almost limitless variety of nanocomposites and engineered alloys, and the design and fabrication of such neometals. Also involves plants and equipment for processing metals and creating new alloys.
  • Mining  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev, modified from the original write-up by Robert J. Hall
    The extraction of mineral resources from an asteroid, planetoid, moon, planet or other object in space.
  • Morphable Pressurized Tensegrity Cells  - Text by John Edds
    A technology for producing rigid polymorphic materials and structures that have a low density.
  • Myomemetic Materials  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Artificial muscle analog material often used by robots and other machines, and by sophonts such as cyborgs and vecs. There are many types of myomer with a wide range of strengths and resistance to damage, from simple memory polymers to so-called Ultimate Muscles.
  • NanoAdhesives Board (NAB)  - Text by John B
    NanoAdhesives Board - an industry-wide agency amongst the NoCoZo, it regulates and approves nanoadhesives for compatibility with a sheaf of publicized standards.
  • Nanometallurgy - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Using industrial and assembler nanotech to manufacture specific alloys or metallic configurations on the molecular scale. Although nanometals do not have the strength and lightness of diamondoid, they are excellent conductors of electric current, are malleable, do not catch fire as easily as carbon-based nano, and can easily be installed with shape-memory features.
  • Neostretch  - Text by Thorbørn Steen
    A smart material that can vary its ability to stretch and the direction in which it stretches. Most commonly used for straps, or in clothing.
  • Omniphobic Materials  - Text by John Edds
    a class of materials that resist being fouled by all foreign substances that impinge upon their surface.
  • Omnitool   - Text by Ryan B
    General class of hand-held technology capable of performing a variety of functions either on demand or after some internal reconfiguration.
  • Pandifico: Elastic Diamondoid Fiber Composites  - Text by Michael Boncher
    A powerful diamondoid composite that is constructed to be elastic and flexible like rubber.
  • Perfect Optics  - Text by Michael Walton
    Materials that almost completely absorb, reflect or conduct specific wavelengths of light.
  • Pigment Technology  - Text by John Edds
    Passive, (often solid-state) colorants used in everything from the shells of marine creatures to the hulls of spacecraft
  • Plastic (material)  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev; some additions by Stephen Inniss
    A synthetic or semi-synthetic amorphous solid material, typically a polymer of high molecular weight made with monomers organic compounds that may be natural or synthetic in origin.
  • Polyfullene - Text by Anders Sandberg
    Polybuckminsterfullerene; nanofactured fullerene composite produced originally for Beanstalks but which also found many uses elsewhere. Polyfullene has a tensile strength close to the theoretical limits of molecular matter; a single one millimeter strand can easily support many tons. The most impressive property is that it is self-healing: if the nanotubes inside a Polyful filament are broken, fullerene from the matrix heals them only causing a slight lengthening.
  • Programmable Matter, Smart Matter  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Matter which can change its physical properties on command
  • Programmable Quantum-Dot Arrays  - Text by John Edds
    Array of variable quantum dots that are incorporated into the surfaces of electrically or photonically conductive nanostructured composite films and nanofibers, capable of creating surfaces and composites with a wide array of optical and electrical characteristics.
  • Relative Cosmic Abundance of Elements  - Text by Stephen Inniss
    The universe consists almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, but of the impurities created by the processes in stars made intelligent life possible, and their relative natural abundance continues to shape the evolution of biology, technology, and society.
  • Sapphiroid - Text by Stephen Inniss
    An alternative term for corundumoid, suggestive of sapphire, which is a blue form of corundum. Early in history, and well into the Information Age, sapphires were a valuable and rare gem stone, and the name was considered more attractive because it implied value. Corundumoid was considered too suggestive of carborundum, an industrial material, and alternative names derived from other coloured forms of corundum, such as ruby, were less euphonious.
  • Scanning Probe Microscope - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    An atomic and information age microscope-manipulator that allowed researchers to see individual atoms and molecules. The device was fitted with a fine point that allowed it to push atoms or molecules around on a surface. A precursor to nanotech.
  • Smartex  - Text by Michael Boncher
    "Smart" latex rubber.
  • Superconductors  - Text by Luke Campbell
    Matter in which electric current can flow without hindrance.
  • Telescopic Limbs  - Text by John Edds
    Robotic limbs capable of extreme elongation with respect to their minimum length
  • Ultimate Muscles  - Text by Luke Campbell
    Artificial, very strong, muscle-like machines.
  • Vacuum Insulated Membrane  - Text by John Edds
    Membrane including vacuum pockets for insulation.
  • Woven Graphene  - Text by John Edds, with additions by Steve Bowers
    Ribbons of graphene woven into hyperstrong fabric or bulk material.
Related Topics
Development Notes
Text by Stephen Inniss

Initially published on 28 May 2005.