RogerBW's Blog

Mythical Orichalcum in GURPS 15 July 2018

Orichalcum is a term that shows up in Plato's Critias, particularly in association with Atlantis, as a signifier of the decline of civilisation. For role-playing purposes one can do more with it.

The implications in Plato are obvious: this isn't a real metal, but just one more sign of how debased modern times are because we've lost all this ancient knowledge. In spite of this, people have tried to work out what the "real" orichalcum might have been.

The Romans mistranslated ὀρείχαλκος ("mountain copper") as aurichalcus ("gold copper"), and had an alloy which they referred to by that name; a numismatist would therefore regard "orichalcum" as the (historical) gold-coloured bronze alloy used for sesterces and dupondii.

But for role-playing purposes the mythical original has been imbued with various sorts of significance. I have GURPS to hand, so I'm drawing from there. It's generally held to be strong and light, but details are mostly lacking.

GURPS Fantasy p. 23:

"Orichalcum looks like bronze and has nearly the same density, but its DR, hit points, and structural strength are three times those of bronze."

A good density for bronze is about 8.8g/cm³. (Modern 12%-tin bronze is about 8.75, while ancient could get up to 8.9; copper is denser than tin.)

Bronze in GURPS measurements has a DR/HP of 50/58 per inch, so we'd be looking at 150/174 per inch.

Let's consider "structural strength" as being tensile strength (specifically working with yield strength, the point at which an elastic deformation stops being reversible). A modern bearing bronze has a yield strength around 140MPa; 420MPa is well within the range of steel and aluminium alloys.

GURPS Infinite Worlds p. 140 has more (for a specific alternate world):

"lighter than bronze, strong as steel"

That's rather less impressive than it sounds given that steel is lighter than bronze and strong as steel, though an easily-mined steel-equivalent would be valuable in itself to a low-tech society.

"it is also a warm-temperature superconductor"

Metallic structure isn't really conducive to this. Though if the metal were formed into a particularly rigid lattice, its structure might form convenient passages for Cooper pairs, making it a high-temperature type I superconductor. (No such is known; all the warmish-temperature superconductors are type II, allowing partial penetration by magnetic fields. So this would make it extremely valuable even without off-the-scale strength.)

"if alloyed with titanium increases its tensile strength ninefold"

Hmm. Well, titanium's yield strength is around 100-225MPa; ten times that and you're looking at the equivalent of diamond and some of the high-grade steels, though not up to Aramid fibre level. That seems almost reasonably plausible for something that acts in the ways previously described – and is fairly useful, though not worth going to major efforts to obtain.

This doesn't make good space elevator cable. Carbon nanotubes are about as strong as Or-Ti alloy (maybe half as strong in the worst case), and one fifth the density; it's the ratio of strength to density that matters.

GURPS Magic p.210 has a "retort, where a handful of orichalcum shavings melted into a pan of alchemical mercury". But I really can't see something as strong as this is meant to be being readily melted over mundane flames. Rather, it's interesting if pure orichalcum has an inconveniently high melting point, somewhere in the 3-4,000°C sort of range: that makes it harder to work with low-tech tools (everything you can do to it is effectively cold working, which will also disturb the crystalline patterns needed for superconductivity), but it has helpful implications for the material's use in demanding applications.

I seem to remember a reference somewhere to key spaceplane components being made of orichalcum (or maybe I made it up when I was running an Infinite Worlds campaign back in 2005), but I don't think this model works in that case. It may be a warm-temperature superconductor, but I bet it's not still superconducting at near-melting temperatures. If it were, that would be really useful, because you could immediately shift the heat from your wing leading edges into heat sinks in the rest of the vehicle.

But really, in order to make orichalcum a useful wonder-material at modern tech levels, it has to get more interesting. So perhaps one can readily grow single crystals of the stuff? (Zero gravity would help.) Most materials gain strength by a factor of about a thousand when grown in this way; it obviously has some single-crystal properties already, so let's give it just a factor of 100. 42GPa is a much more interesting yield strength: among other things it lets you build a superconducting space elevator, with consequent cheap solar power on Earth.

Tags: gurps rpgs

  1. Posted by John Dallman at 03:59pm on 15 July 2018

    Ah, I thought this was going to be a Pyramid article. Coming up in Infinite Cabal: more properties.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:57pm on 15 July 2018

    I was having too much non-GURPSly fun with this to send it there. (The other two are still bubbling away, though.)

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action advent of code aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio audio tech aviation base commerce battletech beer boardgaming book of the week bookmonth chain of command children chris chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup covid-19 crime cthulhu eternal cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics en garde espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 essen 2019 essen 2022 existential risk falklands war fandom fanfic fantasy feminism film firefly first world war flash point flight simulation food garmin drive gazebo genesys geocaching geodata gin gkp gurps gurps 101 gus harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo 2019 hugo 2020 hugo 2022 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life javascript julian simpson julie enfield kickstarter kotlin learn to play leaving earth linux liquor lovecraftiana lua mecha men with beards mpd museum music mystery naval noir non-fiction one for the brow opera parody paul temple perl perl weekly challenge photography podcast politics postscript powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha python quantum rail raku ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs ruby rust scala science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance the weekly challenge thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel type 26 type 31 type 45 vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1