On May 6th, when Captain America: Civil War is officially released to theaters, fans of the Marvel Universe will get to see new adventures involving many of their favorite superheroes, including Iron Man. The alter-ego of arrogant billionaire tech engineer Tony Stark, Iron Man draws his might from the powerful high-tech exoskeleton which Stark keeps tweaking for added protection and enhanced munitions. Since he first appeared in comic books in March 1963, Tony Stark’s suit of armor has been through many incarnations in comics and film; the Wikipedia page for Iron Man’s armor lists dozens of suits and armor add-ons going back to the 1960s.
After Iron Man’s adventures in last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, there are at least three suits which are in working order, despite varying degrees of damage. Of these, the most advanced is the Mark XLVI, or Mark 46, which is put into commission after the most recent Avengers film but prior to the upcoming Civil War. The Mark XLVI is a model of armament engineering and Stark’s first to have a fully retractable helmet. A series of arc reactors light up the area around the suit, echoing Iron Man’s Bleeding Edge Armor from the comic book series and giving Stark a 360 degree panoramic view while wearing it. The armor’s weaponry includes the standard repulsors which Iron Man uses to blind or paralyze opponents with light energy from the arms or the chest’s Unibeam. The suit also gives Stark the ability to take on enemies with lasers and mini-missile launchers for a variety of offensive tactical options. Of course, the armor is also fully capable of zipping Stark through the sky at high speeds thanks to the suit’s repulsors, jet boots and flight stabilizers.
The incredible personalities and superhuman abilities of superheroes has inspired us at IPWatchdog to pursue a Superhero Tech series where we look at the intersection between fictional powers and real-world technologies. Beginning with our look at Captain America’s bulletproof shield, we’ll be strolling through both the Marvel and DC universes in the coming months as other major motion pictures like X-Men: Apocalypse or Suicide Squad are shown across the globe.
Perhaps the most important component to any Iron Man suit is the arc reactor core, which provides the energy required to power the suit’s repulsors and other equipment. Although there is no true real world equivalent to the arc reactor, it’s been speculated based on cinematic depictions of the unit that it functions as a multi-isotope radio decay cell for nuclear energy generation using a palladium core. It’s also assumed that the reactor could not be a hot-fusion reactor as it sits within Tony Stark’s chest and would char him from the inside out.
The round donut-shape of the arc reactor of the Iron Man movies resembles that seen in the designs for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). Established in 2007, ITER involves research and support from 35 member nations during a 35-year partnership aimed at producing the world’s first nuclear fusion device that will produce a net energy gain. ITER’s round shape comes courtesy of its tokamak design, resulting in a magnetic fusion device weighing 23,000 tons holding a plasma which reaches temperatures of up to 150,000,000°C, 10 times as hot as the sun’s core. This type of fusion device requires heat generation to create steam that produces electricity from turbines, making it a poor choice for use within the human body. The tokamak, first designed by Soviet Union engineers in the 1960s, uses its donut-shaped vacuum chamber to house hydrogen gas which becomes plasma under conditions of extreme heat and pressure.
ITER specifically, and tokamaks in general, theoretically function on principles of magnetic confinement fusion, where magnetic force is applied to charged plasma particles within a fusion reactor in order to maintain a circular path for those particles. Keeping plasma aligned on a circular path throughout the reactor allows the plasma to generate the heat necessary for steam production without contacting whatever material is making up the reactor walls, which could damage the reactor because of the plasma’s incredibly high temperatures.
Last August, reports on a breakthrough in nuclear fusion reactor design from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could indicate that commercially viable tokamak reactors could be running within five to ten years. MIT’s reactor design, based on essentially the same physics behind ITER and other tokamaks, incorporates the use of superconductors composed of rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tapes, which have become commercially available only in recent years. The new superconducting materials enable stronger magnetic fields for even more plasma control, allowing smaller reactors to increase fusion power by a factor of 10. This would allow MIT to build a reactor half the size of ITER which would produce about the same amount of energy at a much lower cost. One working ARC reactor, which is what MIT calls its nuclear reactor design, could produce 200 megawatts (MW) of power delivered to the electric grid from a 50 MW input.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) won’t be outfitting its soldiers with personal nuclear reactors any day soon but we could see powered exoskeletons helping to increase the natural ability of human soldiers in just a few years time. The Tactical Light Operator Suit (TALOS) began development in 2013 to provide additional protection to tactical forces entering potentially dangerous buildings. The battery-powered exoskeleton is designed to weigh about 13 pounds while helping soldiers carry an extra 33 pounds of equipment when worn. TALOS will also help to make soldiers more impervious to bullets and bomb blasts and will have an integrated cooling system involving a pump circulating cool water through a series of tubes between the wearer’s skin and the suit. As of this May, the project was on track for a 2018 completion date.
Tony Stark’s array of futuristic gadgetry also includes incredibly immersive augmented reality (AR) computer interfaces which allow him to interact with computerized models through a series of quick gestures. Although the same type of holographic interface is impossible in our world without a wearable computing device, perhaps today’s strongest candidate for a stand-alone AR solution are the SpaceGlasses developed by American AR tech firm Meta. SpaceGlasses offer two 1280×720 pixel displays on a screen size which is 15 times that offered by Google Glass, providing a 40-degree field of view. Other components include depth sensors, twin RGB cameras, surround sound and a 9-axis integrated motion unit which has a gyroscope, a compass and an accelerometer.
Elon Musk, a man who shares many similarities with the Tony Stark of the Marvel series of films, is also trying to make certain aspects of Stark’s lab a reality. His virtual reality (VR) workspace utilizes a Leap Motion Controller which enables gesture control of computer-aided design (CAD) tools on a monitor without any head-mounted computing device. The use of an Oculus Rift VR headset is coupled with the gesture control technology to provide an immersive interaction experience with products being designed, and Musk demonstrates the use of his system with 3D printing technology to a cryogenic valve housing for use in SpaceX rockets.
Full flight capabilities via jet boots and energy-blasting repulsors are currently beyond our technological capabilities but it’s exciting to see innovations dreamt up decades ago come to fruition. No doubt that the events depicted in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War will add to to the legend of Iron Man, a legend made possible by the engineering prowess of Tony Stark and the powered suits reflecting the strength of the world of high-tech development.
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