The Atomic Number of Mithril

Posted by: on Mar 16, 2012 | 21 Comments
aluminum foil

Stronger than dragon scale?

“Its worth was ten times that of gold, and now it is beyond price; for little is left above ground, and even the Orcs dare not delve here for it.”


Mithril, the ultra-light, ultra-strong and ultra-rare metal of Middle Earth, has always fascinated me. When I first read Lord of the Rings I assumed it was magical, but I re-read the descriptions of it, and guess what – mithril is never explicitly described as such. It’s just very rare. “Magical” in the poetic sense, like gold.

If mithril is a “real” metal, not a magical or fictitious one, what could it be? I have an inkling, and it’s both prosaic and surprising. Let’s go through all the known properties of the stuff:

• Very malleable; that is, able to be shaped without breaking or cracking.
• Very lightweight.
• Harder than steel.
• Similar in appearance to silver.
• Resistant to tarnish and corrosion.
• Very, very rare.

There is only one metal that fits all of these characteristics perfectly: Aluminum.

Yes, Aluminum. Aluminium is very malleable – check. That’s why it’s so easy to produce as cooking foil. Aluminum is very lightweight and much stronger than steel – check. In fact, jet airplanes couldn’t fly without aluminium. Similar in appearance to silver – check, and resistant to tarnish and corrosion – check, thanks to the phenomenon of passivation.

“But wait a minute, Mr. Smart Guy”, you say. “Aluminium is about as rare as dirt”. Ah-hah. Yes, that’s true – now. But, before the late 1800s, no one knew how to extract the metal from its ore. The big secret, apparently, was zapping the ore with electricity at a the right time during the smelting process. Before people figured that out, aluminum was literally rarer than platinum. So rare emperors served their most important dinner guests on aluminum, while everyone else had to make due with plain-old gold.

There is still the question of “ithildin”, the magical stuff that could only be seen in moonlight, which the Elves made from mithril. My guess is ithildin is probably mithril with some kind of enchantment worked into it – how or why the enchantment worked, and why it only worked on mithril, I have no idea.

But it seems pretty clear aluminum is a strong potential candidate for mithril, at the very least. And I don’t think it cheapens or “takes the magic out of” mithril; just the opposite, in fact. If Tolkien really did mean for aluminum to be the secret identity of mithril, he was making a pretty powerful statement about how much perceptions and scarcity shape reality. Something we take so utterly for granted was, a thousand years ago, the most priceless stuff on Earth.

Think about that the next you toss a soda can into a recycling bin! The atomic number of mithril is 13.

21 Comments

  1. Greycat
    June 24, 2012

    I am wondering how effective Aluminum Chain Mail would be. Tempered aluminum, is of course, used in aircraft construction. but I am not sure about making chain mail out of it.

  2. Rvid
    June 25, 2012

    Only one way to find out – call Mythbusters!

    If I’m ever inspired to make my own homemade mithril chain mail out of old soda cans, I promise, I’ll post the results for all to see. 🙂

  3. TTK Ciar
    June 26, 2012

    Excellent article! Very nicely done, Arvid. 🙂

    The only flaw I see is that metal made from Mithril was supposedly harder than tempered steel, and the strongest aluminum alloys in use today are barely as strong or as hard as mild steel.

    Perhaps those clever clever dwarves figured out how to sinter aluminum oxide, and the ignorant masses mistook this hard, strong ceramic for a metal? (You see people mistakenly refer to tungsten carbide as a metal all the time, so it’s not that far-fetched.)

  4. Rvid
    June 26, 2012

    Oh noe! So much for that theory.

    I guess maaaaybe my only hope is that steel produced with medieval methods is not as hard as modern steel. I wouldn’t even know how to find that out.

    But I love the idea mithril might be sintered Al2O3… I wonder if aluminum oxide ceramics are used in the real world…

  5. Marino Maiorino
    January 2, 2013

    Oh, yes, they are (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminum_oxide)!
    As a researcher, I saw it being used to encapsulate electronic devices that have to be cooled down. As aluminum oxide is a good thermal/bad electrical conductor, you can glue an electronic device on it, cool it down with a TEC (Peltier) or water recilying pump, and care not for electric troubles.
    More applications on the linked page.

  6. Rvid
    January 14, 2013

    Fascinating! Not only does aluminium protect against orcs and goblins, it also protects against lighting bolts and leaking electrons.

  7. paul
    December 8, 2014

    technically, not quite correct; electricity is required, because the high temperature needed to smelt the metal from the ore can not be achieved with charcoal or coke; doesn’t explain how you can drink it though . . . .

  8. KerrAvonsen
    March 20, 2015

    Hello! I stumbled across this post when I was googling on this very subject. I do like the idea of Aluminium being Mithril (it was on my list of possibles even before I read this).

    Unfortunately, Aluminium isn’t stronger than steel (though it is probably stronger than dragon scales). People have indeed made chain mail from Aluminium (just ask the folks over at http://www.mailleartisans.org, you don’t need to wait for the Mythbusters) and the consensus seems to be that it is good for cosplay, but steel offers better protection, because the rings are less likely to break or bend. Aluminium, being very malleable (as you point out) will bend pretty easily if is of soft temper; but if it’s been tempered to a harder state, it tends to be rather brittle. I’ve worked with half-hard Aluminium rings and I’ve only needed to bend the wire (fully flat, then opposite) four times before it snapped. It fits some of the other criteria, such as lightness, colour and malleability, though. While Aluminium is more commonly a dull silver (and sometimes leaves a black residue), it CAN be polished to a bright shine, so that fits too.

    I also considered Titanium, but it has the opposite problem: it isn’t very malleable; it is quite hard to work, more difficult to bend than steel is.

  9. Rvid
    March 24, 2015

    After posting this I actually did some “research” (Wikipedia) and discovered what you already know: aluminum isn’t stronger than steel. So no, neither aluminum nor titanium are likely candidates for Mithril. Alas.

    Still, it *is* fascinating to think that aluminum used to be more rare/valuable than platinum!

  10. Rvid
    March 24, 2015

    Did not know that! I thought there was something special about electricity, that it unbonded the metal from the slag. Or something. But no – you’re saying electricity just supplies an extra burst of heat, nothing more. Thanks for the info!

  11. Iconoclast
    June 4, 2016

    Titanium is brittle when cold but malleable when heated. While titanium and titanium alloys are weaker than modern tool steels, they are stronger than Western medieval steels. Titanium is probably the closest real-world analogue for mithril.

  12. Diogo Emiliano
    June 6, 2016

    Well friends, I have real Mithril, and its made of iron… lighter as aluminium, hard as titanium and flexible as plastic… shines in a blue-yellow colour with the places with height concentration at the blade appear REAL SILVER! sharper than ceramic. You can slice a steel bar with a 300 grams sword with a meter long blade… please take a look, it’s stainless too

  13. Diogo Emiliano
    June 6, 2016

    I have access to real Mithril my friend, it’s a nanotec new material EXACTLY THE SAME AS U CAN SEE AT LORD OF THE RINGS !!!! please take a look at my YouTube channel and see for your self… it’s made of steel. . Harder than titanium, light as aluminium, stainless, blue and silver , and rare… just I have the formula.

  14. Arvid
    June 7, 2016

    Interesting. And yet, titanium wasn’t separable from ore until relatively recently. According to Wikipedia, Titanium refinement is a complicated and energy-intensive process… but who knows? Those elves are clever!

  15. Arvid
    June 7, 2016

    Please post the link to your channel in a reply, Diego – can’t click through on your original link!

  16. Caleb Robinson
    January 16, 2018

    I submit Beryllium Copper (or some other Beryllium Allow) to be a possible candidate. Beryllium is quite rare, with a little research I found that a mine in Utah was responsible for 80% of the world’s beryllium use in 2010. When alloyed with copper it has high strength and resistance even in comparison to steel.

    Its rare, its strong, and it is resistant.

  17. Caleb Robinson
    January 16, 2018

    Also, I would just like to remind everyone, modern high grade steel would beat mithril itself. Back then, however, the highest grade would be probably some form of crucible steel. Which is would still be pretty strong but wouldn’t hold a candle to modern metals.

    So what we are looking for is a metal/alloy that beats a lower grade steel.

  18. Arvid
    January 16, 2018

    Fascinating, thanks for the info – did a little digging (Wikipedia) of my own, and the alloy seems to be used for tools used on oil rigs, environments where explosions are possible, since it doesn’t spark. I guess the only strike against BeCu as mithril is the color, it seems to be naturally copper-tinted, surprise, surprise…

  19. Arvid
    January 16, 2018

    THAT is a great point, also. I saw a PBS series on “secrets of the Viking sword”, a little silly, but it did lead me to wonder: how good was the “best” steel from late Dark Age Europe? The sword they featured on the show, for instance – apparently the steel came from Persia, because the Persians had better metallurgy skills at that time. But yes, it occurs to me modern, high-grade steel would probably cut through a samurai sword like butter.

    I also wondered about the skill of the “sword smith” on the show – could he really be at the level of a smith at a time when swords were actually used as something other than wall decorations?

  20. Caleb D Robinson
    January 17, 2018

    There could be other alloys of beryllium that have a more silver color. I know there are also nickel and beryllium alloys that are pretty tough. Also interesting to note, beryllium is the mineral in emeralds that makes them green. Tolkien does tell us that elves shared a love for emeralds on par with mithril. Interesting beryllium could be the element they were fond of.

    To follow your other train of thought, yes Rick Furrer is the real deal. You can tell something is cheap if they cut the sword out of a sheet or some kind of stock removal method. Hand forging a metal makes it stronger. He also quenched and heat treated his steel. Wall hangers don’t use methods like that because it is cheaper to skip over them. They also did a strength test in that video and examined the micro structure and it looked clean. If anything Rick Furrer’s sword is better than anything medieval. Better tools and better science.

  21. Arvid
    January 18, 2018

    That was the other side of my question – what if this smith (Rick Furrer!) is actually BETTER than the smiths of that time period? I was surprised (terrified when) he quenched the blade in oil, I’d always thought water was the medium. Must be pretty dangerous…

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