We're celebrating the May 7 (April 28 internationally) release of "Iron Man 2" with Iron Man Month 2010! Get ready for a monthlong mega mix of all things Shellhead right here on Marvel.com!
By Ryan Haupt
Marvel has a proud history of science-heroes, with many Marvel heroes emerging as accidents of science or the product of their own scientific ingenuity. Tony Stark is one such hero and in order to analyze his plausibility we brought in an honest to goodness scientist to figure it out for us.
Ryan Haupt holds two Bachelor's of Science in Environmental Geology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz and is going back to school in the fall to get a Masters in Paleontology from Vanderbilt University. Currently, he helps research a variety of topics ranging from stable isotope geochemistry, mammalian paleoecology and oceanographic paleoclimatology. He hosts the podcast "Science... sort of" with two grad student friends where they hang out while talking about science and geek culture. He occasionally fights rabid and rogue elephant seals, but only for science.
The first topic that needs to be tackled is Iron Man's armor itself. It opens the door to all the nitty gritty stuff like flight, user interface, weapons and more. The frame provides the foundation for all that fun stuff. Without it, ya got bupkis. With that in mind, let's explore (as best as current technology allows) the armor!
Is the suit actually made of iron? Well, no, because iron is very dense and heavy, it rusts and isn't nearly as hard as some of its own alloys such as steel. In the comics, the original Mark I cave-made version of the suit probably had iron, or at least some iron components. Unsurprisingly, this material is abandoned with haste once back in the lab. Iron as a viable metal was discarded in the comics less than a year after the character's creation, and that was the 60's. So what would Tony Stark really use?
The answer is likely a combination of materials. The most "traditional" solution would be an alloy of titanium, nickel-titanium (aka nitinol). It's traditional because it's an alloy and those have been around for a very long time, but nitinol is still pretty special stuff. It's strong, it's light (for a metal), it has a high resistance to heat and it heals. Yes, it heals...sort of. Nitinol can be deformed at one temperature then resume its original shape once heated above a specific "transformation temperature." This property could come in extremely handy when making repairs after being hit by many bullets, as is often the case for Tony Stark while wearing the suit.
Other materials of note include carbon-carbon composite, which is a type of carbon-fiber-reinforced graphite. It's extremely strong, but brittle; however it can take a ton of heat. You know the nose-cone of the space shuttle, which experiences temperatures in excess of 2300° F during reentry? You better believe it's carbon-carbon. Tony's rocket boots burn pretty hot, so he's possibly using carbon-carbon in there somewhere.
The last material of note is what's called single-crystal titanium, which is so cutting edge it's not on Wikipedia yet (i.e. your friends will think you're really cool when you bring this one up). According to Jacob Stump, an aerospace engineer and stress analyst at Northrop Grumman, this is a custom grown piece of titanium which reduces the number of imperfections, making it much stronger than other types of titanium. It's starting to be used in military jet engines that are susceptible to bird strikes. Hopefully Tony isn't hitting any birds, but if he did, this material could take it.
One would think that the major limiting factor to a plausible Iron Man suit is a viable power source. The reactor in Tony's chest may as well be "science magic" for all the real world sense it makes. Just accept that he has an electronic donut that gives him unlimited energy and move on with the show, right? Wrong! Magical science donuts of energy actually exist...sort of.
Check out the Tokamak reactor, an experimental Cold War era Soviet fusion reactor (See: An Overview of Plasma Confinement in Torodial Systems at http://arxiv.org/abs/0909.0660v1). It's not a perfect analogy but we can chuck that up to "Tony is a genius, therefore he made it work."
A Tokamak reactor uses a torus (donut) shaped mass of plasma kept in place by magnetic fields to create energy. It's plausible that the arc reactor at Stark Industries is an American version of this type of reactor. Size is obviously an issue, but there are Tokamak prototypes that could fit on a good-sized tabletop. The scaling down, as lamented by Obadiah Stane in "Iron Man," is part of Tony's particular brand of genius.
This reactor is a nice fit for Iron Man because it incorporates the various functions the reactor must fill. It generates a buttload of power, incorporates magnetic fields and is shaped like a donut. Icing on the cake? It uses plasma. The proof of this is when Pepper is helping Tony switch out the cave-model for the upgraded Mark III model she complains of puss and he corrects her saying, "It's an inorganic plasmic discharge."
In "Iron Man," Tony Stark makes a big deal out of getting palladium from the missiles in the cave when he's building his initial chest-sized arc reactor. This is likely an essential component of the reactor because palladium is one of the few elements theorized to be a potential room-temperature superconductor. Modern superconductors have to be kept very cold due to the way electrons flow through metals or semi-metals. Why would it be necessary for Stark to have a superconductor in his chest? Well, superconductors make some of the most powerful electromagnets in existence, which would be useful in containing plasma in one's chest. If you're going to have something that volatile right next to your heart, you want to make sure it's very well-contained. And let's not forget the magnet is pulling double-duty keeping shrapnel out of his heart so the more B the better (B is physics notation for a magnetic field). Creating a magnet field with a superconductor is a lot like starting a fire. It takes a good bit of energy to get the fire started, but once it's burning the occasional log keeps it going just fine. This leaves plenty of leftover juice for things like flight, but more on that later.
Plasma can't be created from nothing; it's a state of gas that has been heated to the point where the electrons are stripped off the atoms leaving ionized subatomic particles all over the place. Because it's ionized, it can be easily controlled with magnetic fields. And before you ask, it is in your plasma-screen TV. The sun is another good example of plasma you may be familiar with. The sun uses fusion (didn't we just say Tony uses fusion too? It's all coming together!) and the simplest, but still very effective, element to use for fusion is hydrogen. It works for the sun; it can work for Iron Man. The process of fusing two hydrogen atoms together creates one helium atom, some other junk and energy. In fact, quite a lot of energy. So there you have it: the suit has power and is contained. How Tony gets his hydrogen and what he does with the helium are both topics for another upcoming article.
Real Life Exo-Suits
If we want to find something even close to an Iron Man-style suit in the real world we have to turn to one of Marvel's more "incredible" characters. And if you know your titular adjectives, you'll know we're talking about the Hulk, or more appropriately the HULC. Lockheed Martin (our world's version of Stark Industries if there ever was one) has created what they call the Human Universal Load Carrier (but something tells us they came up with the acronym first and worked backwards).
Calling this a suit is pretty generous. It looks more like a frame to reinforce one's own limbs, but it's still pretty cool. It's nowhere near as functional as something Tony Stark could put together; in fact, its main feature seems to be its ability to allow soldiers to carry heavy loads for long distances while maintaining combat readiness.
Some research on the Internet reveals that there are some other suits like this in production, but the HULC seems like the most fully-realized and functional of the bunch. Unfortunately, we're a ways off from anything close to what Tony Stark is using, but to heck with all that. Let's just say it works. Now, how would it fly? See ya next week...
This article would not have been possible without the help of some spectacular science-types who have specialized in fields I ran screaming from my freshman year of college. I'd like to thank Ben Tippett (University of New Brunswick), David Tsang (CalTech) and Jacob Stump (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University). I couldn't have done this without their knowledge and willingness to converse endlessly about the awesomeness that is the Marvel Universe. Thank you very much. To anyone I've forgotten to mention, thank you too.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, aka the super hero Iron Man in this sequel to the 2008 blockbuster. RDJ, Paltrow, Cheadle and Rockwell are joined by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Mickey Rourke as Whiplash. Jon Favreau once again takes up the directorial reins for Marvel's armored avenger.
"Iron Man 2" is one of a continuing slate of films being produced by Marvel Studios based on the Marvel characters, including "Thor" on May 6, 2011, "The First Avenger: Captain America" on July 22, 2011 and "The Avengers" on May 4, 2012.
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