Marvel Science: Iron Man's Armor
Want some real-world scientific theory behind Iron Man's armor? Get it now!
Otherside: I found this on marvel.com and thought since no one posted it here that I should. It's a very interesting reading only it should have been done in a video such as the one about Batman, Spider-man, and Superman on the history channel... still this was interesting just the same. Here ya go:
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" (http://www.sciencesortof.com/) 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...
Think back to the first trailer for the first "Iron Man" movie, particularly the point in which we see Tony in the suit breaking the sound barrier. If you're confused by how you can 'see' something break the sound barrier, just Google the phrase and you'll see what it means. While many science-minded viewers excited pumped their fists due to the film's accuracy, it does present a challenge: How on (or more accurately off) earth could Iron Man possibly fly?
If you read the first Marvel Science article on Iron Man's armor, you'll recall the serendipitous discovery of the Tokamak reactor. Tony could use the reactor to power his suit, providing an elegant solution to the magic-science power-donut problem. Well today, Iron Man goes 2-for-2 with the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). Don't be intimidated by the name, the only two terms you really need to focus on are "magnetoplasma" and "rocket." The way this rocket works is pretty simple, especially if you remember the previous article. Quick recap though: plasma responds to magnets because it's full of ionized subatomic particles. The chest reactor's goal is to keep this plasma contained, but a rocket like this one's goal is to push the plasma out the bottom with enough force to provide thrust.
Tony already has the basics in place, a supply of plasma, superconducting electromagnets to contain the plasma and power to run those same electromagnets. Check out this diagram from NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/support/researching/aspl/images/vasimr.jpg. You'll notice those are the same basic ingredients to build a VASIMR.
Now, Tony would just need a system in the suit to shunt some of the plasma from his chest down to his feet and fire it out the bottom with some magnetic nozzles. The main addition needed is a way to heat the plasma up even more before ejections. This can be done with an ion cyclotron resonance frequency booster antenna, which is a fancy type of particle accelerator that uses magnetic fields and is circular. Then the additional thermal energy is converted to kinetic energy and shoved out the bottom of the boot. Kind of like if Gambit stood on his cards and launched himself into the air.
Again, like the Tokamak reactor, the VASIMR has its own set of challenges for Tony to overcome. The VASIMR is classified a 1 on the technology readiness level, which means it's still in the "basic research" phase of existence, a far cry from operating in a battlefield. Right now they're really big but with enough energy to power the thing it wouldn't be impossible for Tony to scale it down for his needs as he did with the arc reactor. Another stumbling block so far? VASIMR prototypes have only been tested in a vacuum. It's a bit unclear if this means they only operate in a vacuum but they've been proposed as a high-atmosphere form of propulsion, which implies functionality in air, not just in space. Finally, the VASIMR produces a lot of magnetic field energy. So much so that some critics of the design worry it could affect the Earth's magnetosphere, and that would be bad, because we need the magnetosphere to, y'know, live and stuff. Tony can insulate the suit against the strong magnetic fields, but the Earth can't. Let's assume since he's scaled down the rocket to boot size the Earth can take the strain.
Problem two, and it's a doozey, is one of fuel. You see, there's another factor that can be seen even in the early images of Iron Man flying, and that is smoke. It appears that when Tony flies he produces a smoke trail, which makes sense given the name "rocket boots." But rockets require fuel, and lots of it. If you've ever seen a shuttle launch you probably remember the giant orange external tank (or ET, NASA has an acronym for everything) attached to the underside of the shuttle fuselage. That's liquid oxygen fuel for the shuttles' main engines. Seriously, that whole thing is one big gas tank. Once in orbit the shuttle just drops the empty ET to burn up in the atmosphere. So rockets take a lot of fuel. Since Iron Man isn't usually depicted with giant tanks of frozen gas on his back something else must be factoring in to his propulsion system.
Well last week the question of fuel was also mentioned, specifically where the raw material to create the plasma comes from. Since both the rocket and the reactor need hydrogen as fuel they might as well get it from the same source, and the best source is probably Tony himself. An adult human male carries about five liters of blood in their body. A little more than half of that blood is plasma. Plasma is 90% water. Water has two hydrogen's right there for the taking with the help of a little electrolysis.
Physicist Ben Tippett did some back of the envelope calculations based on these assumptions and the results showed that Tony would be burning through about a liter of water per hour of running the reactor at full capacity. This would dehydrate you and fast, so it's a good thing Tony drinks plenty of fluids. But as long as he kept enough water in his system he'd have all the fuel he needs with no giant tank. Which is good because a giant tank would make the whole contraption pretty hard to steer, right?
Sure, it's great to have millions of pounds of thrust under your feet, but it does little good unless you can steer. A bit of a primer on how actual aircraft control themselves is in order. Actual fixed wing aircraft (i.e. not helicopters) have a huge advantage because some, but not all, are naturally stable. This means everything is put in place such that the plane will fly in a straight line without any pilot input, and if it's really finely tuned it will neither ascend nor descend. This is what people mean when they try to reassure nervous passengers that the plane "wants" to be in the air. Therefore any change in the motion of the aircraft must be directly controlled by the operator, especially before the invention of computers.
Some aircraft, like the F-22s Tony engages in "Iron Man," are naturally unstable. A paper airplane model of the F-22 would not fly in a straight line like a Cessna would. But computers, in this case called a control system, can handle the discrepancy with the use of control laws. Control laws are a set of physics calculations which take in a lot of data about the aircraft and its surrounding environment and in turn make adjustments to the various control surfaces across the aircraft. These control systems come standard on all modern aircraft and work so well that according to aeronautical engineer Jacob Stump, every modern aircraft flies better than even the best aircraft available in the 1970s.
High school physics books tell us that planes fly because of the airfoil shaped wing that create a pressure differential on the top and bottom creating lift. And this is all well and good, but the Iron Man armor has no wings. Well neither did the Apollo Saturn V rocket, and that thing was huge. All it takes is enough thrust in the right direction and you can get in the air.
But before control, we must have stability and this is where all the computers and control surfaces discussed above are used.
In the movie, Tony even tells Jarvis, his friendly AI-enhanced supercomputer, to "do a check on control surfaces" before taking the Mark II on its initial flight. This is yet another scene in the movie where nerds should have squealed in delight because it's exactly those subtle touches that are done so right in the movie that bring the character and his world alive. But I digress, the suit has many points of articulation which means lots of control surfaces but a beefy computer like Jarvis should be able to handle the fine-tuning even during mid-flight without issue, you can even see a bit of this happening from time to time in the film. So it's safe to say Tony flies stably.
Flying stable is a good step in the right direction, but mobility is even better. After all the science it took to get us this far, the actual control becomes surprisingly simple. Tony has repulsors in his hands which could easily provide enough force to twist and turn him, provided his legs and torso also moved accordingly. The suit is likely locking Tony's legs into the appropriate position during flight. Tony's legs need to be rigid and directly behind his torso, where most of his weight is, in order to prevent him from spinning like a pinwheel instead of flying straight ahead. Leave it to Jarvis to make adjustments from there.
Real World Personal Flight Devices
After last week you may be worried that all the real world has to provide is one clunky, barely functional analog to what Tony could put together. And last week that was indeed the case. This week you're in for a treat because there are three clunky, barely functional analogs that will get you off the ground, for a fee of course.
These examples more than anything else emphasize how difficult the issues brought up earlier in the article will be to overcome. Pilot Yves Rossi's self-built and operated jetpack can only be used if you're willing to throw yourself out of a plane, which probably isn't a very big deal if you're already willing to use a jetpack, but it does drive home the difficulty of thrust. The Jetlev-Flyer uses water to propel a person skyward, and as you can see here, this jetpack comes complete with a long hose to provide the water to be used for thrust, which emphasizes the fuel issue. And the Martin jetpack takes two dudes standing on either side to help you keep the darn thing under control even in a warehouse with no wind and/or gunfire.
So as expected, none of these options work all that well for fighting the Air Force single-handedly, but they're probably much more exhilarating than the latest flight simulator. Speaking of videogames, we should probably figure out just how Tony interacts with the suit to get it to do what he wants. Until next Tuesday...
THE UI (USER INTERFACE)
Before we begin there’s an experiment you should consider doing. It’s pretty simple. Unplug your keyboard, now unplug your mouse. Done? Good. Now close this browser window. Kinda tricky, right? What’s that? You were on your phone and it’s a touch screen? Oh, well now we just look foolish, but hopefully we’ve also proved a point. All of our incredible technology is great, but it’s only as great as your ability to control and interact with it. Without these input links between us and our stuff it’s all nothing more than power-sucking paperweights. Well the Iron Man armor is a bit more complex than your average laptop, so Tony needs more than a keyboard and a mouse to get stuff done. This is exactly the issue we’re tackling today as we explore, IRON MAN: The UI (user interface).
This article is a bit different from the previous two in that we’ve established that for our purposes the Iron Man suit exists and functions as it should. So within those rules the way it’s operated actually falls to some pretty realistic and available technology. Some more available than others, so we’ve decided to organize this from available to not-so-much. It’ll build suspense and you might just learn something!
If you had to scroll down to read this all it took was a flick of your index finger. Tony doesn’t have a mouse or keyboard but he still has his fingers and they’re still inside a suit capable of receiving commands. More than just his fingers his entire body is capable of inputting commands depending on how the suit has been programmed. As mentioned last week, there are likely times, such as during high powered flight, where the suit itself takes over certain portions of Tony’s body to make sure they’re in the correct position. Outside of those constricted circumstances, the freedom of movement allowed by the suit is basically the same as any other human would have. It’s one of the main benefits the suit has over a plane in the first place.
Well if you spend enough time at the keyboard you may have the thing memorized and don’t even really need the keys in front of you to know where to put your fingers to type what you want. If you had access to one of these (http://www.virtual-laser-keyboard.com/demo.asp) that skill could come in very handy. Jarvis could easily project a virtual keyboard in Tony’s helmet that he could then use his fingers to manipulate just as if he was using a real keyboard. This is a bit inelegant for something so complex, it barely works for video games, but we know Tony uses something like Bluetooth to make phone calls from within the suit so a keyboard may have some utility. Anyone with an e-mail enabled smart phone will attest to the convenience of e-mail on the fly, and Tony does have a corporation to run. Also, as writer Matt Fraction pointed out in an early issue of INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, there is no manual for the armor and no tech support. Tony programmed it initially and he may need to make adjustments to the code literally on the fly. A keyboard would allow just that.
A similar system could even fill the function of a mouse. Move the hand, which is in the suit so its motion is detected, and the mouse moves. Click the index finger, the mouse left clicks. You get the idea. The keyboard and mouse combination is pretty useful, but it is far from sexy in terms of futuristic technology. So let’s see if we can’t up the ante a bit with…
It’s clear when watching "Iron Man" that Tony’s voice is modified when speaking through the suit. It makes sense because he did have a secret identity to that point, plus the suit is thick and makes noises of its own so I’m not sure if Tony could even shout loud enough to be heard through his helmet if he wanted to. But that’s actually a nice thing; it allows Tony to use his voice without anyone knowing it. This would be good for something more routine than what would be needed with the keyboard and mouse. Like testing the control surfaces, flight paths of other flying objects, and calling a friend on the phone. These things probably happen regularly enough and don’t lend themselves to any specific motion to activate that it’s probably as simplest to just say it out loud to Jarvis.
While not quite a ubiquitous as the keyboard and mouse, voice recognition technology is readily available and becoming even more advanced with each cycle of Moore’s law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore's_law). It used to be that a person had to really train the software to recognize their specific voice and speech patterns. Nowadays a phone can recognize even complex names like Wisecup, Olsson and Beil without any prior training with one’s voice or how those names should be pronounced. It's not perfect, but the progress it’s made in such a short amount of time is nothing short of astonishing (Marvel really does have the best adjectives).
Well Tony has a huge advantage over you and your phone; and that advantage is Jarvis (the super-computer, not the human butler, though a butler would be quite an advantage too). Obviously we don’t know much about Jarvis’ inner-workings, but we do see what he’s capable of doing and it’s a lot. It’s safe to say Jarvis (no doubt an acronym, but let's call him Just Another Really Very Incredible Supercomputer) is a from scratch AI (artificial intelligent) made for Tony by Tony. Jarvis runs Tony’s house, it presumably is the force controlling the holographic display in Tony’s shop that he manipulates with his hands, and it can upload itself without difficulty into a recently built, completely experimental suit of armor. Think of Jarvis like the R2-D2 in the X-Wing, not running the show, but providing much needed back up. Additionally, Tony has those two other more corporeal bots in his lab as well, and they seem to at least rudimentarily understand his commands. So Jarvis isn’t even a prototype, making it that much more effective.
Humans are extremely visual animals. Much of how we interact with the world is based on what we see, and while operating the Iron Man suit Tony is under the same biological restrictions. So why not turn that limitation into a strength? As soon as Tony puts on his helmet the audience experiences just how that is done. Information is flooding Tony’s field of view within the suit, or the heads up display (HUD). Every object he looks at immediately has information brought up and displayed, so clearly Jarvis is tracking Tony’s eye movement and doing what it can to provide environmental data. It’s unlikely this is much more than a convenience and less of a control mechanism, but is an integral part of how Tony interacts with the suit and thereby the world around him.
Tony in the suit is far from subtle and quiet. He’s a man of action and even though he’s highly controlled by the suit itself while flying, fighting is an arena where he needs to be the one calling the shots, fast and with great accuracy. While Tony loves his projectiles, he’s not without his brawler side while in the suit. This kind of control is the easiest to explain. Since the suit is in sync with his actual body all it needs is to sense his movements and provide a 1:1 response and augmentation. The computer in Tony’s suit must be fast enough to sense motions as he’s doing them (if not, there’s a really cool way around that, but you’ll have to keep reading) and since the suit is much much much stronger than any human it can give Tony a boost so that he can punch through walls, toss guys around like something that’s lighter than a guy you’d like to toss around, or hold onto a plane while it’s flying.
As for actions that have no human analog, like firing wrist mounted missiles, there needs to be a preprogrammed “grand gesture” that the suit understands and responds to. For example: Tony always spreads his fingers apart whenever he fires the repulsor from his palm. This is a good idea to avoid losing any much needed fingers, but we suspect it’s also the initiation of the firing itself. Think of it the same way as Spider-Man’s webs. The webs only fire with that one specific hand motion, so when Peter makes a fist he’s not spraying gunk all over the place. Well when Tony locks his elbow and spreads his fingers, the suit knows he wants to fire the repulsors, probably uses his eyes and arm to figure out where he wants to aim, and makes it happen. This would all have to happen extremely quickly, but that’s why computers are so wonderful. The example here is repulsors but this is probably how a majority of the offensive capabilities are controlled. It may seem a bit unnatural and cumbersome but there are many martial arts that seem unnatural and cumbersome until your body learns the movements and can incorporate it to make everything a fluid form. This may be another reason Tony, who could easily build more suits, keeps them among friends. It’s not as simple as just putting it on and going for a stroll, there’s a rhythm to working it that someone not familiar with could really get hurt trying to do.
The Futurey Stuff
As is tradition at this point, this article couldn’t possibly be complete without showing you something that has hugely cool potential future applications but barely works in the modern world. Just enough to whet the appetite of someone interested in future tech, and leave the door wide open for rampant speculation. Well one of the things scientists are working hard on that Tony could really use is a direct mind-machine interface. The two top contenders for the most functional of these are rat neurons and Italians.
We’ll just say this and give you a moment to process it before moving on: rat neurons can fly planes! (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/10/041022104658.htm) Back? Good. Here’s the skinny. These researchers took rat neurons and put them on top of a bunch of electrodes. The electrodes were connected to an F-22 flight simulator. The electrodes fed the neurons information from the simulator and the neurons connected to each other in such a way that it created a neural network that can control the aircraft. So it’s not even taught how, it just learns from the raw data input. This may not be very applicable to Tony and his suit but it does demonstrate the relative ease with which nerve cells will accept novel input and adapt to function with it.
The second and more Italian prospect is Pierpaolo Petruzziello, who had to have his left arm amputated after a car crash. Fortunately, science has come a long way since the days of pirates and now he has a prosthetic arm he can control with his mind even when it isn’t attached to him! (http://sify.com/news/experts-man-controlled-robotic-hand-with-thoughts-news-health-jmdaEzgijdh.html) What’s even more amazing is that he can feel feedback from the hand too. The experiment only lasted a month, electrodes had to be attached directly to the brain and that leads to other complications. Like the rat neurons, it takes significant training to get good as using this type of interface, but the younger generation all learned to type from an early age, in the future mind-machine interface may be equally commonplace. Tony installing something similar, presumably “wireless” to avoid the holes in his skull, would allow him an unprecedented level of control over the suit in every circumstance.
Well that we’ve figured out how he tells the suit to fire the weapons, we should figure out just what the heck some of those weapons are. Get ready for a fight next week…
It's been a month. You've done your homework learning the ins and outs of how to build, fly and operate your own Iron Man suit. But it's all for naught if you can't help defend the people that need you, so we enter the final chapter in the science of the Armored Avenger, and that is how to fight!
Even though repulsors may seem the most interesting and iconic weapon in Tony Stark's arsenal, the trend we've established thus far is to start with the plausible and work up to the fantastic. So why waste any more time? Let's go!
If Tony Stark has one bona fide superpower, it must be to take things that are usually big and make them smaller but still just as effective. Twice in "Iron Man" he does this with missiles. First with the Mark I cave suit which looks to be little more than a bottle rocket with some sort of explosive in the front. It flies straight and goes boom; however, later in the film Iron Man successfully takes out a tank with an even smaller looking armament. "Successfully" in this sense being defined as it works so well he can turn and walk away from the explosion without looking back as only a mega awesome badass can do. The only plausible way a missile
that small could do that much damage without containing some secret gizmo only Stark has access to is if the weapon is "smart." A smart missile is one that can target the weak points of a structure to inflict maximum damage with minimal payload.
But missiles get shot at Iron Man too, and that's something that needs to be dealt with. In the movie, Jarvis is warning Tony of incoming missiles and showing him their trajectory on his HUD (Head-Up Display). Missiles that can target and chase you are tough buggers to deal with. You can fly right at them and get so close that you activate their proximity detector and they explode as you zip past-which is really dangerous and doesn't always work-or you can do what Tony does and release flares. Flares, usually containing magnesium, burn hot enough to trick an infrared missile that they are the target causing it to explode too soon. Tony even uses these offensively against Obidiah Stane to blind him temporarily during their fight. Kids, don't look directly at burning magnesium or you'll wind up in a robotic suit fighting your protégé.
The U.S. military is currently testing out active defense systems that target and destroy incoming projectiles, both missiles and tank shells, using lasers! (http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/11/video-fix-activ/) The suit probably doesn't have one of these already because Stark Industries likely didn't waste time on "defense," being a company that prided itself on offense. But defense is important, both of the suit and while inside it. So Tony better learn and fast, which is fortunately something he's good at.
Tony should be more careful, he does have a heart condition after all. Getting hit by tank shells in the chest can't be good for the shrapnel in Tony's heart. The source of his magnetic field was explored in our first article, but just how is it physiologically keeping him alive even in the heat of battle? Well we went straight to cardiac surgeon Dr. John Perry for some answers.
We know that Tony's chest shrapnel is intercarial, or inside the heart itself, based on statements made by Dr. Yinsen expressing concern over Tony's atrial septum, which is the bit of tissue separating the top two chambers of your heart right now! It's kind of important. So having shrapnel near there sounds bad, but it's whether or not the shrapnel moves that makes it truly dangerous. If the shrapnel doesn't move it may not even be worth removing, because the body will form scar tissue over it and it'll be stuck in place for as long as you're using your heart.
If the shrapnel is mobile you could be in trouble. It could tear an artery/vein, part of your heart or be pumped somewhere else like a lung or even your brain. This is all bad news, so if the shrapnel has the potential to move around, measures must be taken against it doing so. Say it's in Tony's left atrium, because left is worse for shrapnel than the right side; right really only pumps blood to and from the lungs, the left
side is responsible for the rest of the body. That's why you feel your heart beating in the left side of your chest, it's doing more work.
So if Tony has a piece of shrapnel is his left atrium and it's floating around, that's bad; it can tear stuff up inside the heart or block valves, preventing blood from flowing properly. It couldn't be immediately removed cause of the whole "stuck in a cave in Afghanistan" situation, so Dr. Yinsen came up with a novel solution: magnets! Since the force of the magnetic field is operating perpendicular to the wall of the heart, the shrapnel will be pulled up against the inner wall of the heart itself and be then immobilized. When Tony's chest reactor is removed by Obidiah Stane, Tony looks like he's about to faint, a medical condition called syncope, which could be caused by the shrapnel in his heart blocking the flow of blood through the atrium. As soon as he reapplies the magnetic field, the problem is solved and Tony can get back on his feet. The bottom line to all this squishy science (i.e. biology) is that Tony can take hits to the chest and be ok with regards to the shrapnel.
We've already established that his armor is tough enough to take a hit, but Tony is a bit softer so he'll need some serious padding inside the suit if he wants to not get beaten to a pulp just being inside the thing. The best way to do this would probably be a cushioning system built out of some non-Newtonian fluids. Water, a Newtonian fluid, is incompressible, so it behaves the same way under pressure as it would in any other circumstances. Non-Newtonian fluids change behavior when force is applied. Next generation bullet-resistant armor is starting to incorporate shear-thickening fluids which are liquid under normal conditions but become much harder when force-like a bullet-is applied. Sound too good to be true? Mix equal parts water and corn starch in a pool and you can run across it as if it were solid, just don't stop moving (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2XQ97XHjVw). It makes sense Tony would augment his armor with this kind of fluid because it could be moved around inside the suit to where it would be needed most.
Shear-thinning, the opposite flavor of non-Newtonian fluid, would also be handy and comfortable. The fluid is viscous when at rest, but flows when force is applied. So it'd be like a couch cushion that molded to you as you jumped on it. In the early issues of THE ULTIMATES, Tony appears covered in some kind of goop as we takes off the suit, so Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch may be even farther ahead of the curve than we give them credit for. There's no cool video of shear-thinning, you just need to go to your local diner and try to pour some ketchup; it's thick at first, but hit that bottle a few times and it flows like, well, something less thick. Shear-thinning, baby!
There's a scene in "Iron Man" where terrorists are holding hostages at gunpoint because they're terrified Iron Man will hurt them. The plan is
ill-conceived because Tony has a secret weapon: shoulder-fired bullets with computer targeting. His eyes and Jarvis decide who's hostile and then they are dealt with, but bullets usually require a gun to work very well, right? If only that was the case. Metal Storm, a company specializing in superposed load ballistic technology, makes a product of the same name which would be perfect for what Tony has in his shoulders (http://www.metalstorm.com/content/view/58/91/). The bullets are self-contained with their own propellant and just need to be placed in a tube, jolted with some electrical charge to ignite them, and sent on their way. There's not much more to say until the science isn't speculative anymore. Tony Stark's job exists in our world, and there are some very smart people working very hard at it.
One thing no non-fictional company has cracked is the repulsors. They're the final bit of science-magick we just can't seem to crack. At first glance they seem to have a lot in common with Iron Man's chest reactor and rocket boots, and some have argued that this is indeed the case. But there are some confounding factors at play. Let's look at what we do know about the repulsors from the movie.
1. No obvious moving parts.
2. They require a very brief charging period.
3. They seem to impart a kinetic force on the target; there is no obvious thermal or chemical damage.
4. They can be used without the rest of the suit.
5. Regardless of what the comics say, there is some recoil against the user.
Based on these known principles of repulsor technology we can conclude that there is something else going on here besides his chest reactor and rocket boots. The repulsors seem to have more in common with the newly developed 'sound bullets' which use an acoustic lens to direct high intensity sound to a specific target much in the same way repulsors do (http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=acoustic-lens-generates-bullets-of-2010-04-05).
At the end of the day, the most important thing we know about repulsors is that they are "proprietary Stark technology." Meaning it's their toy and you only get to play with it for a significant fee. Now that we've been through our text-based industrial espionage to break down Tony's armor piece by piece it seems fair we leave Mr. Stark something to turn a profit on. Building new suits every half hour ain't cheap. Besides, we haven't even seen the movie yet, why guess when we could go collect more evidence? That's the scientific way. Thanks for reading and learning along with us this month and we'll see you at the theater this Friday.
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), Daniel Oliphant (University of Pittsburgh), Jacob Stump (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University), Dr. Bruce Haupt (Holzer Clinic Orthopedics) and Dr. John Perry (Holzer Cardiovascular Institute). 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.
Otherside: This makes me want to build my own set of Iron Man armor! Hey anyone a billionaire that likes to throw away money? Too bad idk about you guys but I'm more like Spider-man in money... sometimes I envy Tony Stark... ah well you guys know the drill comment or debunk below:
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