Bam! Science Inspired by Superheroes


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The Search for Superpowers

Superheroes: They’ve got it all. Impossible abilities, fantastic physiques — everything but a purchase on reality. Even that is changing as scientists’ command of the molecular world yields stuff with such whiz-bang properties that they evoke the super-materials of Marvel and DC Comics lore.

Suveen Mathaudhu is adjunct assistant professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University and a program manager at the U.S. Army Research Office in Durham. He’s also a comic-book fan who thinks scientists and engineers can take inspiration from costumed crusaders, and bring magic to life. He has challenged colleagues to strive in their research toward “limits envisioned only in comic book realms.”

Click ahead to see comic-book movies and myths paired with the latest science.

Captain America’s Shield

In Marvel lore, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tasks Dr. Myron McClain with finding a better recipe for steel that will help improve U.S. tanks for fighting in Europe. He accidentally creates the mystery alloy that’s later used for Captain America’s shield — the strongest material in the Marvel universe.

The trend toward lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles (as opposed to stronger shields) is driving a lot of research into super-metals. Suveen Mathaudhu’s own lab creates ultrahigh strength magnesium alloys, which otherwise are known for being light but not that strong. He thinks such an alloy could potentially substitute for steel in some car paneling.

Advances in steel manufacturing hold promise for stronger car bodies that absorb energy better in crashes, and some of the so-called advanced high-strength steels are approaching commercialization.

Batman’s Armor

In Batman Begins (2005), the caped crusader’s armor is built on a foundation of flame-resistant Nomex, with Kevlar-reinforced armor in the chest, back, thighs, calves, arms and mask.

Five-times stronger than steel by weight, DuPont developed Kevlar initially to make car tires stronger. The first antiballistic materials were tested on goats. They survived, making them, by analogy to Batman, the world’s first super-goats.

New Kevlar products offer resistance to shrapnel from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and a variety of low-speed threats like stabs and spikes.

Even cooler than Batman is research being conducted by researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the University of Delaware into so-called liquid armor, a fluid that hardens on impact. It could be used eventually in soldier uniforms, space suits and surgical gloves.

Batman’s Cape

In Batman Begins, industrial designer Lucius Fox gives Batman a cape made out of a material that is flexible under normal conditions, but that can stiffen when exposed to an electric charge. This allows him mobility when on the ground, but the ability to glide when needed.

Dielectric elastomers are a class of polymers under development that revert between shapes by converting electricity into mechanical energy. Researchers are probing their potential uses in artificial muscle for limb prosthetics.

Spider-Man’s Wall Crawling

So many animals — from spiders and insects to squirrels and lizards — can climb vertically that critters probably wouldn’t even consider Spider-Man’s wall-crawling a superpower. They’d just think it’s weird nobody else can do it.

People might be able to once scientists perfect synthetic Gecko feet glue. Geckos, and spiders, stick to walls because tiny hooks and hairs together take advantage of forces that dominate the atomic-scale world. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, researchers have developed Geckskin, an extremely powerful adhesive. The ability to don a pair of gecko-tape gloves and scale walls like Spider-Man might not be fantasy at all.

Spider-Man’s Web

In the latest movie version, Peter Parker creates a synthetic polymer that’s as strong as real spider thread.

Scientists are just beginning to account for why spider thread is so strong — stronger than an equal weight of steel. The strength might come from its tendency to shift between stiff and stretchy states. Individual fibers change back and forth depending on the amount and kind of force applied to them.

While industry would have great use for a synthetic ‘smart thread,’ there are likelier lessons here from the network effects in a spider web. Individual strands in a spider web absorb outside forces — wind, flies, leaves — without transmitting their stress throughout the rest of the structure. Understanding that property could be useful for civil engineers, immunologists and protectors of the biggest web of all — the worldwide one.

Iron Man’s “Arc Reactor”

Tony Stark is one of Marvel’s most vivid creations, made ever more so by Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (2008) and two sequels (2010 and 2013).

Embedded in his sternum is a powerful magnet that prevents shrapnel, stuck there from a near-fatal wound, from entering his heart and killing him. It’s powered by an “arc reactor,” which also provides energy for his Iron Man armor.

The ability to conceal a nuclear power plant in your shirt isn’t an imminent possibility, but reactors are shrinking. The U.S. supports modular nuclear reactors, which are cheaper and easier to site than conventional models. The military is looking into ultra-lightweight reactors for soldiers in the field.

Taylor Wilson, a 2013 high school graduate from Reno, Nevada, has gained celebrity for his precocious work in nuclear energy. He said by email: “Unfortunately there’s no way to scale down these fission reactors to quite fit inside a suit, especially considering the necessary radiation shielding.”

Iron Man’s Mark III Suit

Reading to himself an account of “Iron Man’s” exploits in the morning newspaper, Tony Stark clarifies aloud that the suit is not iron but actually a “titanium-gold alloy.”

In reality, a titanium-gold alloys are heavy and not that strong, Suveen Mathaudhu says. Unless you’re thinking of using it for dental crowns, for which its hardness could be sufficient and anti-corrosion properties helpful.

Alloys of strong, lightweight titanium with aluminum, vanadium, iron and oxygen are common in aerospace and defence parts, such as the front edge of jet turbine engines, which must withstand occasional high-speed impacts and high temperatures.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Warrior Web program designing exoskeletons that can help soldiers carry their equipment.

Wolverine’s Skeleton

Logan’s life was weird enough before renegade military doctors coated his entire skeleton with the indestructible metal adamantium (Marvel’s play on the same root shared by “adamant” and “diamond”). Latent mutant powers had manifested themselves when he was a boy, enabling Logan, aka Wolverine of the X-Men, to heal spontaneously. Also, claws shoot out of his fists when he gets mad.

The medical community can’t coat bones directly to make them stronger. That’s why soccer players, baseball catchers and armored medieval knights still have to wear awkward bone-protection equipment on the outside.

A new group of glassy metallic alloys might have some promise here. Called “amorphous bulk metallic glasses,” these materials start out as liquid then cool quickly into a hard, glassy form that could be of use in medical devices and implants, and in surgical equipment. Currently, surgeons use metals like stainless steel or titanium for implants to replace hips and knees. Metallic glasses are potentially stronger for those uses, wear well and resist corrosion.

Neither materials scientists nor doctors can make claws shoot out of your fists.

Fantastic Four — Mr. Fantastic’s Uniform

The Fantastic Four gain their superpowers when a cosmic ray burst hits flight researcher Reed Richards’s spaceship (instead of, as one might expect, broiling them instantly). Richards’s body turns to plastic, and is able to stretch into any shape. Fortunately for him, and the other members of the Fantastic Four, the inner lining of their spacesuits transform with them, so they each have something to wear.

Spandex might help clothe a real-world Mr. Fantastic in a pinch. It can stretch up to about twice its original size, depending on the thickness and weave.

U.S. and Korean scientists in 2012 discovered a super-stretchy, super-strong hydrogel, a kind of polymer soup suspended in water. Think super-tofu. The stuff can stretch up to 20 times its starting length and can absorb a lot of energy before tearing. Doctors might be able to use it eventually to help people regrow cartilage.

Even if they could make a suit out of the new hydrogel, Mr. Fantastic might still want to wear a plastic fig leaf — the material in the September 2012 Nature study was see-through.

Fantastic Four — Invisible Woman’s Uniform

The cosmic ray burst that turned Reed Richards into bipedal Silly Putty (previous slide) gave Sue Storm invisibility.

Here science has seen some progress. British researchers made headlines in 2010 with their paper about “flexible metamaterials,” thin films that channel and refocus electromagnetic radiation around an object, rendering it invisible in part of the light spectrum. Experiments focused on the microwave band, a much lower wavelength than high-energy visible light.

Flexible metamaterials give Sue Storm’s suit a real-world cousin, but invisibility to white light is still fiction.

Fantastic Four — Human Torch Uniform

A member of the Fantastic Four, Johnny Storm is the burning bush of superheroes, on fire but never consumed.

Flame-resistance has been with us for decades. Nomex, developed by DuPont in the early 1960s, is used by soldiers, firefighters and racecar drivers, where fire-resistance is critical. Unlike conventional fabrics, which tend to continue to burn when removed from fire, Nomex extinguishes itself.

Thor’s Hammer

Thor belongs to a family of godlike beings. His super-powers are channeled through a divine hammer that gives him access to natural meteorological disturbances.

The hammer is made of Uru, a metal found only on his world, Asgard. It was forged inside a dying star, an environment that isn’t replicable in labs.

Suveen Mathaudhu suggests Thor-wannabes turn to laboratory research into how high temperatures and pressures can transform materials. At pressures equal to those deep inside the Earth, for example, materials start to show properties that don’t appear at the surface. Zirconium is experimentally promising as a super-hard substance because, unlike many others, it retains the properties cooked into it in high-pressure, high-temperature experiments.

Incidentally, Thor’s hammer, known in Norse myth as Mjolnir or “that which smashes,” shouldn’t be confused with that other thing that smashes.

Emma Frost’s Diamond Form

The ability to turn oneself into a diamond, a specialty of Emma Frost, on its face would seem to carry more limitations than powers (“Form of… earrings!”). In the Marvel world, Frost’s transformations into diamond, make her invisible and invincible.

Invincibility is easier to find in rocks than in living things. In 2010, French scientists were analyzing a meteorite that hit Finland in 1971. Polishing the rock down with a diamond paste, they discovered some of it wouldn’t grind away. It was a previously unseen form of carbon even harder than diamond, probably formed by the heat and pressure of entering the Earth’s atmosphere and then hitting the ground. Now if only they can get it to fight evil…


The Tesseract looks like a small box of light, and provides unlimited power to whomever possesses it.

Energy storage remains a challenging area of research, which is why battery technology lags other fields, like solar production or wind turbine design.

Scientists are making progress on experimental materials that can store tremendous amounts of energy. Researchat Washington State University has demonstrated that in high-pressure, high-temperature conditions similar to those halfway down to the Earth’s core, a compound called xenon diflouride essentially freezes mechanical energy into a dense network of chemical bonds. The trick would be then retrieving it in a controlled manner.

Wonder Woman’s Golden Lasso of Truth

Big-screen success has eluded Wonder Woman, much to the dismay of fans who feel she deserves better. This month brought news that she’ll appear in the Supermansequel expected in 2015.

Wonder woman’s “golden lasso of truth” is her most famous piece of superhero killer gear. In fact, her character was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, 20 years after he published his first research into “systolic blood pressure symptoms of deception” — or lie detection.

Real-world analogues to Wonder Woman’s lasso, or Spider-Man’s web, might emerge from research into high-performance threads. Materials scientists at Northwestern University are looking to biochemistry to create carbon nanotubes — long an object of scientific and popular fascination — that “take advantage of a toughening mechanism seen in spider silk and collagen.”

Dr. Manhattan

Named after the U.S.’s World War II effort to build atomic bombs, Dr. Manhattan is the omnipotent, ghostly remains of Jon Osterman, a physicist who is reduced to atoms when trapped in a high-energy research chamber. Mysteriously reconstituted months afterwards, he is so powerful that mere knowledge of his existence tips the Cold War strategic balance in the U.S.’s favor.

Able to duplicate himself, shrink or grow in size, teleport and control matter, Dr. Manhattan is in many ways the ultimate in superheroes, a god so powerful he has trouble maintaining interest in human affairs.

His lesson is equally powerful: Being all-powerful isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be if you can’t be be all-knowing, too.


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