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Trilithium possible?


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#1 ervin64

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 01:41 AM

I saw the Andromeda series episode, "Illusions of Majesty", just last night.  

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In the episode, they mention something about clouds of trilithium.  Immediately my mind flashed to "Star Trek" and their dilithium crystals.  Is there any kind of scientific evidence to support clouds of trilithium?  Or really any evidence for trilithium?

#2 BR48

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 02:42 AM

Ah, a chance to practice my physical chemistry skils.  :)  Let's see...

Lithium has 3 electrons, and the ground state electronic configuration [1s2][2s1].  Rather than doing the math, I'll try to go through this qualitatively.

Now, there are three Lithium atoms, each contributing two atomic orbitals.  So, we would predict that the resulting molecule should have six molecular orbitals.  The LCAO approximation shouldn't cause any problems here, so I feel pretty safe in predicting two bonding, two non-bonding, and two antibonding orbitals.

The system has nine electrons total.  So, that'll leave one empty antibonding orbital and a half-filled non-bonding orbital.  This results in a bond order greater than zero, so I predict that trilithium should exist.

A quick glance at the NIST chemistry webbook reveals that the prediction is correct.  Trilithium is a known substance that has been observed.  Li2 has also been observed, but it isn't called Dilithium, AFAIK.

#3 Delvo

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 02:55 AM

Even DI-lithium, the crystals they use to regulate the matter-antimatter reaction that powers warp drive (and other stuff in emergencies), is made up, just as much so as TRI-lithium (the stuff that a star-destroying weapon used in Generations).

Lithium is the third element in Period Table order, and thus the third lightest and third most common one in the universe, behind helium and hydrogen. It's not very remarkable. Its only semi-major use is in certain psychiatric drugs, where it's delivered in an ionic compound because of its tendency to form 1+ ions (just like hydrogen, potassium, and sodium).

The Star Trek TNG technical manual includes a fictional formula for dilithium, which includes stuff of a format I don't recognize and presume to be fictional references for how to make otherwise ordinary matter do something abnormal, such as multi-dimensional nuclear coordinate positioning or infusing the molecules with subspace resonance properties or some other such Trekkism. I think they even intentionally implied that it wasn't an ordinary chemical formula that would follow the standard rules of chemistry and known elements' properties, by calling the formula a "forced-matrix composition formula" (in other words, something nobody has any idea how to do at all).

But the key thing to know about dilithium is that, strangely enough, it's not a form of lithium at all, as the name would suggest. I don't even think it has lithium in it, recalling only the H-elements being mentioned. Worse yet, the "di" in dilithium implies a specific molecular structure consisting of two lithium atoms per molecule. This would be yet another run-of-the-mill diatomic gas, just like the natural forms of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

But they needed a cool substance to do cool stuff in sci-fi stories, and the name seemed to sound cool to them, so that's what they called it, just like when Azimov called his robots' brains "positronic". It might as well have been "mithril".

When the time came to write a story involving a mad scientist who'd created a star-buster, they just took the name of the heart of warp drive and made it sound Bigger! to indicate that this new thing is involved in even bigger, niftier high-energy reactions than the original.

The appearance of trilithium in Andromeda signifies nothing other than the inability of the current crop of "writers" to conceive of science fiction in any way other than the Trek way.

#4 ervin64

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 03:01 AM

Thank both of you for answering me.  The explanations were certainly interesting although I didn't quite understand the chemistry totally.

So, if trilithium really exists, how does it form?  Are there any uses known for it?  

Why would clouds of trilithium be potentially hazardous to a ship?

#5 BR48

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 03:14 AM

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Even DI-lithium, the crystals they use to regulate the matter-antimatter reaction that powers warp drive (and other stuff in emergencies), is made up, just as much so as TRI-lithium (the stuff that a star-destroying weapon used in Generations).
The properties are totally fictitious, but as I said, Li2 and Li3 are both known compounds.

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Its only semi-major use is in certain psychiatric drugs, where it's delivered in an ionic compound because of its tendency to form 1+ ions (just like hydrogen, potassium, and sodium).
Actually, Lithium is very important for all sorts of organo-metallic synthesis reactions.

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Are there any uses known for it?
No.  It is a fairly high energy species, and it isn't very remarkable overall.

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Why would clouds of trilithium be potentially hazardous to a ship?
Trilithium is quite reactive.  It could theoretically corode a fullerene hull, though a ship that can withstand 20 megaton explosions shouldn't be threatened by a diffuse cloud of chemicals.

#6 tennyson

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 03:37 AM

Actually the first mention of the fictional trilithium occurred in the TNG episode "Starship Mine" where it was a toxic byproduct of the warp engines that could also be used as a powerful explosive, which is why the ship was invaded while it dock, to steal the trilithium. If it is actually the allotrope trilithium then it would make sense in that context since the explsion it produced there was rather small and more suited to a chemical reaction.
As for the Andromeda trilithium, it was a bad idea to use such a loaded name for what they were dealing with. Although with the kind of particle densities we are taking about to have a chemical reaction propagate like that through the cloud and Andromeda's engine output, the Andromeda would have to travel at what amounts to a slow crawl while moving in that system not to be abradded into scrap fullerene. Going at around 30 percent the speed of light in something as dense as a planetary atmosphere is a good way to die horribly even with CW level technology.
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#7 BR48

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 03:44 AM

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As for the Andromeda trilithium, it was a bad idea to use such a loaded name for what they were dealing with. Although with the kind of particle densities we are taking about to have a chemical reaction propagate like that through the cloud and Andromeda's engine output, the Andromeda would have to travel at what amounts to a slow crawl while moving in that system not to be abradded into scrap fullerene. Going at around 30 percent the speed of light in something as dense as a planetary atmosphere is a good way to die horribly even with CW level technology.
Was it that dense?  I haven't seen the episode, so I just assumed it was a nebula...

#8 Nikcara

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 04:35 AM

EEEEKKK!!!!   I THOUGHT I HAD GOTTEN AWAY FROM MO THEORY!!!!   bad BR48 for bringing me back to it!!! oh well I was tainted before anyway....

Either way, Li3 would be unstable, so I have a hard time seeing clouds of it floating freely about.  It would bond with about whatever electrophile was around
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#9 Christopher

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Posted 28 April 2003 - 02:20 PM

Delvo, on Apr 27 2003, 07:45 PM, said:

The Star Trek TNG technical manual includes a fictional formula for dilithium, which includes stuff of a format I don't recognize.... I think they even intentionally implied that it wasn't an ordinary chemical formula that would follow the standard rules of chemistry and known elements' properties, by calling the formula a "forced-matrix composition formula" (in other words, something nobody has any idea how to do at all).
Thanks, you've just answered a question I've had for years.

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But the key thing to know about dilithium is that, strangely enough, it's not a form of lithium at all, as the name would suggest. I don't even think it has lithium in it, recalling only the H-elements being mentioned.

Err, actually the formula given in the TNG Tech Manual (leaving out the special symbols) is "dilithium diallosilicate heptoferranide."  So I assume that each dilithium molecule (if that's a valid way of talking about a crystalline substance) contains Li, Si and Fe, and probably O as well, since I think "silicate" refers to a silicon-oxygen compound.

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The appearance of trilithium in Andromeda signifies nothing other than the inability of the current crop of "writers" to conceive of science fiction in any way other than the Trek way.

Or maybe it was intended as an in-joke.  Either way, it's sloppy, and an act of creative pickpocketing.

I don't know which surprises me more -- the fact that they said "trilithium" in a DROM episode, or the fact that there really is a compound of that name.

Actually the bothersome thing about Trek trilithium is that the references to it are not consistent.  In "Starship Mine" we see it as trilithium resin, a routine waste product of warp engines, which Picard has to stop the mercenaries from stealing.  But in Generations it's spoken of as though it were some fairly obscure and rare compound, and Picard never seems to have heard of it.
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#10 DWF

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Posted 29 April 2003 - 12:17 AM

Christopher, on Apr 28 2003, 08:10 AM, said:

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I don't know which surprises me more -- the fact that they said "trilithium" in a DROM episode, or the fact that there really is a compound of that name.

Actually the bothersome thing about Trek trilithium is that the references to it are not consistent.  In "Starship Mine" we see it as trilithium resin, a routine waste product of warp engines, which Picard has to stop the mercenaries from stealing.  But in Generations it's spoken of as though it were some fairly obscure and rare compound, and Picard never seems to have heard of it.
Actually it was Riker who appeared not to have heard of it, and since it can used an explosive, I guess it's possible to use it to stop the reactions of a sun. :unsure:  :wacko:

And it's entirely possble that, the writers asked somebody about it, before putting it into the ep. :unsure:
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