The Molecular Marvels of the Transformers

The Molecular Marvels of the Transformers

Author: Yann BrouilletteORCID iD, William D. LubellORCID iD

The hypothetical chemistry behind the sentient alien robots that can transform into vehicles, machines, or creatures known from comic books, cartoons, toys, and movies

Transformers Robots Arrive on Earth! With the power to transform in shape and function, robots that had crash-landed and remained dormant for nearly four million years are stirred back to life by Earth’s volcanic activity in 1984. The noble and wise Transformer, Optimus Prime, leads the Autobots in a nonaggressive plan to return to their home planet Cybertron by repairing spaceships peacefully among humans. In contrast, the Transformer Megatron commands the sinister Decepticons to plunder Earth’s resources, rebuild the Cybertron empire, and restore order in a galaxy plagued by weak organic lifeforms.

“Autobots, transform and roll out!” shouts Optimus Prime as the clash of Cybertronians begins in three episodes of a cartoon series, “The Transformers Generation 1 (G1)” in 1984. The collaboration between Hasbro Toys and Marvel Comics gains momentum, four seasons and ninety-five other episodes roll out and Earth is transformed. Robotic toy sales skyrocket, and famous actors like Orson Welles, Scatman Crothers, and Leonard Nimoy lend their voices to Cybertronian characters on the silver screen.

Transformer technology is close to becoming a mainstay, akin to chemistry’s capacity for self-healing, color change, and resistance to rusting oxidation. This progress is in part inspired by Cybertronian conversions from humanoid form into cars, planes, microscopes, radios, entire planets, and more than meets the eye!


1 Transformable and Self-Healing Materials

“Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée: tout se transforme” [1], or “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed” (published in 1789)—The visionary chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was likely not thinking of Cybertronians when laying the foundation of the Law of Conservation of Matter [2]. Nevertheless, Lavoisier’s law is obeyed by Transformer body armor, the composition and origins of which are heatedly debated in comics and movies.

On Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, concepts like “BioMetaMechanical synthesis” [3], “non-cybertronian elements” [4] (e.g., promethium and gadolinium), along with “the interaction of naturally occurring gears, levers, and pulleys” [5] are all claimed to have “miraculously brought forth sentient beings”. Various hypotheses have been put forward by scientists within the Transformers lore, including renowned Decepticon and Autobot scientists such as Scorponok and Perceptor.

“Transformium”, an unknown rare-earth metal, is hailed as “the greatest advance in modern physics since the splitting of the atom” and serves as the key component of Transformer “programmable matter” according to Kinetic Solutions Incorporated (KSI) CEO Joshua Joyce [6]. Transformium bestows remarkable properties, including a low density, resilience, and thermal stability, enabling Transformers to fly and enter Earth’s atmosphere without a spaceship [7]. This requires tolerance to temperatures as high as 1477 °C [8].

Among the actual rare-earth metals, scandium (Sc, element 21, d = 2.99 g cm−3) melts at 1540 °C [9] and is slightly more dense than aluminium (Al, element 13, d = 2.7g cm−3), but relatively rare and expensive restricting industrial use.

The Cybertronian exoskeleton has been described by Autobot ally Captain Lennox as a “self-regenerating molecular armor, which can heal after damage given available energy” [10]. The Autobot Ironhide described his composition as a steel alloy [11]. Alloys are composed of a metal mixed with at least one other metal or nonmetal, which can confer properties superior to those of the former.

Self-regenerative properties have been exhibited by the alloy Nitinol (Nickel Titanium Naval Ordnance Laboratory). It was developed by the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, USA, and is used in heat engines [12], orthopedic implants, and medical devices [13]. In contrast to standard metals that expand on heating and undergo permanent deformation, Nitinol shows “super-elasticity” and can be bent and twisted before recovering its original shape upon warming at the transition temperature [14]. Composed of about equal amounts of nickel and titanium, Nitinol performs reversible crystal transformation on heating.

Slight differences in the nickel to titanium ratio have dramatic effects on the Nitinol transition temperature which can vary from –100 °C to +100 °C. These properties have made nickel-titanium alloys popular in the automotive industry. Nitinol is used in various vehicle parts that require shape-memory capability to regain their original form after deformation. This includes springs, bumpers, actuators, as well as rotating mirrors, wipers, handles, and lock assemblies [15].

Elastomers are polymers that show rubber-like elasticity and reconfigure after stretching. Self-healing elastomers have been developed based on the organic polymer polyurethane mixed with natural biodegradable polymers such as cellulose, lignin, and chitosan for applications in tissue engineering and scalable electronics [16]. By using combinations of weak bonding interactions and reformable dynamic bonds, specific elastomers show the ability to repair themselves after experiencing mechanical damage. For example, scratches were removed in less than an hour, and a paint job, described as “as good as new”, was restored when an automotive coating containing a polyurethane-chitosan blend with dynamic oxetane units was exposed to UV light [17,18].

Toward achieving self-healing rubber tires, commercially available bromo butyl rubber underwent a transformation. This conversion involved changing alkyl bromide functionalities into imidazolium bromide counterparts (see Fig. 1), thereby introducing reversible cross-links. These cross-links self-associate through ionic interactions, enabling cut samples to heal and restore the original elastic properties (see Fig. 2) [19].


Figure 1. Commercially available bromo butyl rubber (1) is converted on heating into isomer 2, which reacts with n-butyl imidazole to provide a regenerative imidazolium bromide polymer 3.



Figure 2. (a) The original imidazolium bromide polymer 3 has reversible cross-links that self-associate through ionic interactions. This enables cut samples (b) to heal (c) upon heating, thereby restoring the original properties.


2 Transmutable Color-Changing Materials

Transformers can change colors, as their “living metal” drains and infuses with color, depending on the Transformer’s vitality. Switching from a black car with yellow highlights into a characteristic yellow humanoid form, Autobot Bumblebee uses transmutable coloration as effectively as his undersea fish counterpart, the Bumblebee Cichlid. This fish demonstrates aggression by swiftly changing color from yellow with brown stripes to solid black [20]. Moreover, color-changing Transformers toys (see Video 1), such as the “Aquaspeeders” and the “Stormtroopers”, turn pale when hit with warm water squirted from bellows-fed cannons [21].

Color-changing materials are currently in development for various applications. Materials showing thermochromism change color with temperature. Known since antiquity [22], thermochromic materials are being pursued for sustainable building [23,24], but have found common use in toys, smart labels, and novelty items like mugs that change color when carrying hot liquids [25]. Thermochromic paints are usually composed of either liquid crystals that reflect specific wavelengths of light contingent on orientation or leuco dye pigments that can alternate between colorless and colored molecular forms.

Leuco dyes can switch forms reversibly on changes in environment including temperature, light, and acidity (pH). In sustainable buildings, leuco dyes are placed in smart windows and roof coatings to diminish energy consumption by favoring light absorption for heating and reflection for cooling. Electroluminescent materials emit light on exposure to an electrical charge and serve in organic light-emitting devices (OLEDs) [26].

Neothane tires, capable of glowing in bright yellow, blue, red, green, and orange hues upon driver command, were conceived in the 1960s by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, OH, USA. This technology involved the use of tiny light bulbs to shine through translucent rubber [27]. Glowing, transmutable, color-changing tires spun however out of existence upon discovery that Neothane overheated and lost traction at speeds over 100 km/h and on wet surfaces [28].

In the pursuit of creating cars that glow at night, the technology developed by LumiLor in Medina, OH, USA, involves an electroluminescent paint layer that emits color when electric power is activated [29]. The first car having color-changing attributes entered traffic in 2022. The BMW iX uses so-called E-ink technology, in which microcapsules filled with colored charged particles can move freely through a liquid matrix or be displayed on charged surfaces. Changing color and pattern upon command, the BMW iX Flow automobile offers driver personalization [30].


Video 1. Color-changing Transformer toys commercial. TFRaw!! Transformers Multimedia Archive, December 20, 2020.


3 “May Your Luster Never Dull …”

Just as kryptonite is a weakness for Superman, the Cybertronian metal composition of the Transformers suffers from rust in various forms [31]. “Cosmic rust” is a microorganism that can spread over a Transformers body in seconds. A cosmic rust-infected asteroid is blamed for the demise of the Autobot planet Antilla over a million years ago [32]. Although Ironhide, the Autobots’ resident weapons specialist and Optimus Prime’s old friend, died rapidly after being shot with cosmic rust from a cannon wielded by Sentinel Prime [33], Megatron escaped death from cosmic rust infection thanks to ‘”Corrostop”’, an anti-corrosive conceived by Autobot scientist Perceptor [32]. Lusterless Decepticon chemist Oil Slick is credited with creating cosmic rust in the laboratory [34].

In addition, Cybertronians suffer non-communicable Corrodia gravis, which breaks down Dinobot Snarl metal components [35], and “red rust”, an insidious artificial virus created by the traitorous Autobot Pharma, which spreads by touch and exhibits no symptoms until Cybertronians transform [36].

Corrosion, in which a refined metal is converted to a more chemically stable oxide, was estimated to have cost USD 2.5 trillion worldwide or about 3.4 % of the global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 [37]. Rust is typically associated to the corrosion of iron through contact with water containing dissolved oxygen gas. Red iron (III) oxide hydrate (Fe2O3•H2O) forms, flakes off, and exposes fresh iron, which steadily disintegrates [38].

Other metals, such as aluminum, tin, and chromium form oxide coatings that stick to the metal, protecting it from further corrosion (see Video 2). Galvanization is a common way to prevent rusting by applying a protective coating of another metal such as zinc onto steel or iron [39]. The absence of oxygen in deep space renders corrosion unlikely, but uncoated silver and iron parts can corrode quickly in satellites orbiting around Earth because the atmosphere contains significant amounts of oxygen and more reactive oxygen species at high altitudes [40,41]. Although tin parts may avoid corrosion, the low temperatures of deep space would cause disintegration because ductile metallic allotrope white tin transforms rapidly to brittle, non-metallic grey tin at –30 °C, a change referred to as tin pest.


Video 2. Megatron’s iron-based body frame suffers from cosmic rust. The video depicts the transformation from β tin to α tin in a time-lapse sequence of a sample maintained at -40 °C, captured at a rate of 20 shots per hour, with a grid size of 1 cm.



4 “… the Level of Technological Sophistication Required to Achieve True Biometamechanical Synthesis” [42]

More than seventy years since the mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing, questioned “Can machines think?” [43], Chat Generative Pretrained Transformers (ChatGPT) are in daily use worldwide, and self-driving cars are idling awaiting to navigate our roads [44]. Transformative chemistry has replicated the self-healing, color-changing, and anti-corrosive features of Transformers.

Optimus Prime would often conclude, ‘Neither impossible, nor impassable!’ [45], gesturing towards the planet Mars, which is inhabited by robots. Engineers at the Turkish company Letrons have built a functional, drivable BMW transformer [46], and Spot, the agile mobile robot created by the company Boston Dynamics in Waltham, MS, USA, showcases remarkable terrain navigation abilities coupled with sensing, inspection, and data capturing capabilities, rivaling those of the panther-like Decepticon character Ravage [47].

Programmable matter may be only fiction, but the field of “claytronics” is combining modular robotics, systems nanotechnology, and computer science to create interactive, nanometer-scale 3-dimensional displays of electronic information [48]. Cybertronians may arguably be robots in disguise already among us.



The authors thank Corentin Martinage for the chemically heroic illustrations.



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Author Information

Yann Brouillette (Corresponding Author)
Chemistry Department, Dawson College, 3040 Sherbrooke St. W., Westmount, Quebec, Canada H3Z 1A4 ([email protected])

William D. Lubell
Département de Chimie, Université de Montréal, Complexe des Sciences, 1375 Avenue Thérèse-Lavoie-Roux Montréal, Québec H2V 0B3
([email protected])



For those who are new to the Transformers universe.


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