Iron Man’s Suit, Thor’s Hammer and Captain America’s Shield. – What are they made of?

Image credit: Shutterstock, 6 May 2019.

Iron Man’s Suit

You could say that Tony Stark was a bit under pressure when he developed his first Iron Man Suit, captured by terrorists and having suffered an injury by a shrapnel that is moving dangerously close to his heart. With the help of a fellow captive Stark builds a generator to power an electromagnet keeping the shrapnel from killin him as well as the very first Iron Man Suit that he uses to escape.

While this prototype suit was welded together from steel, and was therefore actually made from iron, Stark kept improving and developing his armours over time for different applications. This means that the Iron Suit materials changed over time.

Stark must have quickly replaced steel with a different material since it is a very heavy and rusts easily. The following armours were probably made from titanium since it is much lighter than steel, but still extremely strong. In addition to its strength, this metal can resist extreme temperature changes as well as chemicals such as acids, alkalis and water.

Stark might have chosen the alloy “nitinol” later on when improving his armours. This alloy is a mixture of the metals titanium and nickel. Therefore, it has all the above mentioned advantages of titanium, but it also has two special features called “shape memory” and “super elasticity”. These two properties help the alloy to return to its original shape after deformation. This means the material can “self-heal”, a huge advantage when fighting super villains like Thanos and Ultron.

For his final suits Stark seems to have moved away from metals completely. At the beginning of “Avengers: Infinity War”, he proudly tells Dr Strange that his new suit is made from carbon nanofibers. These fibers are very long and thin threads of carbon. Woven together, carbon nanofibers are both stronger and lighter than titanium and nitinol. This sounds like the perfect material for an Iron Man Suit (which is actually not made from iron as we have seen).

Thor’s Hammer and Axe

(Mjolnir and Stormbreaker)

Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir, was forged from the heat of a neutron star, called Nidavellir. These incredibly heavy, dense stars are made when giant stars die in supernovas and their cores collapse. Due to the heat and pressure protons and electrons inside the core melt together to form neutrons. There are no repulsive forces between the neutrons, which means they pack together extremely tightly creating a relatively small, but super heavy object, the neutron star.

Unfortunately, all of this does not exactly tell us which material Thor’s Hammer and Axe are made from. I personally always assumed that it was in fact made from the neutrons inside the star. This would explain why it is so incredibly heavy.

However, in “Avengers: Infinity War”, this does not seem to be the case. Thor, Rocket and Groot travel to Nidavellir to forge a new weapon for Thor. In the scene that shows the forging of Stormbreaker, Thor’s Axe, it is clear that the heat to melt the metal comes from the neutron star. But that does not seem to be the case for the metal inside the boiler.

So, what else could Mjolnir and Stormbreaker be made from? Thor’s Hammer is always said to be extremely heavy. This means it must be at least partially made from a very dense metal. The two densest metals on today’s periodic table are osmium and iridium. These two materials could be a part of Mjolnir’s and Stormbreaker’s composition.

Besides being heavy, Thor’s weapons should also be reasonably strong when fighting Thanos, Ultron and other intergalactic villains. However, osmium and iridium are not very strong metals. Therefore, the material for Thor’s weapons would have to be an alloy (a mixture of metals) between osmium and/or iridium as well as a stronger metal like steel (which already is an alloy itself). With a mixture like this, you might just get the right material for Thor’s Hammer and Axe.

Captain America’s Shield and Black Panther’s Suit

Captain America’s Shield and Black Panther’s suit are both made from vibranium, a very rare metal that does not naturally exist on Earth. The only source of vibranium is the African kingdom Wakanda, the home of Black Panther. The country has a prehistoric meteorite to thank for this incredible natural resource. Vibranium fuelled Wakanda’s rapid technological development making it one of the most advanced nations on Earth.

In the movy “Captain America: The First Avenger” we get some demonstrations about what makes vibranium so special. Moreover, Howard Stark claims that vibranium is stronger than steel, which is proven later in the movie when Captain America’s shield defends projectiles from machine guns and even withstands rocket grenades.

In addition to being extremely strong, vibranium also has a low density, which means that it is very light. Howard Stark also reveals that the name vibranium comes from the fact that the material absorbs any kind of vibrations including sound.

There have been some discussions regarding the nature of vibranium. Some say it could be an alloy or a composite material since no pure metal on Earth comes close to its extraordinary properties. However, all composite materials and alloys that we know of have to be made in longer processes by humans, they do not exist naturally. Therefore, it is very unlikely, in my opinion, that such materials have reached Wakanda on a meteorite.

In my personal view, the meteorite must have either contained vibranium in its uncombined form or bound up in an ore. Ores are rocks that contain enough of a metal to extract it, so the Wakandans could have found an easy way to extract the vibranium. However, both these two scenarios would mean that vibranium is a new, unknown element.

Nevertheless, everyone is entitled to their own view on the Marvel Universe.

Sources

M. Lorch and Andy Miah: ”The Secret Science of Superheroes”, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017, Chapter 7 and 8.

Nitinol: https://www.memry.com/intro-to-nitinol, 6 May 2019.

Carbon nanofibers: http://www.materialsforengineering.co.uk/engineering-materials-features/top-14-materials-for-2014/58395/, 6 May 2019.

Neutron star: http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/cosmos/N/Neutron+Star, 6 May 2019.

Movie: Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011.

Movie: Thor, 2011.

Movie: Iron Man, 2008.

Movie: Captain America: Civil War, 2016.

Movie: Black Panther, 2018.

Movie: Avengers: Infinity War, 2018.

Death Star, Enterprise, Stargate and ISS – Which materials are they made from?

Image Credit: NASA, Karen Teramura, UH IfA, 2015.

As a materials chemist I am interested which materials are used in certain items. So, recently watching the series Star Trek: Voyager has led me to the question which materials are used in space flight in science fiction series. Also, will we ever have  access to those materials?

Let us start with a brief introduction about where we are today. The International Space Station (ISS) or the Orion spacecraft that is currently developed by NASA contain a wide range of materials for different tasks. Nevertheless, the ISS modules, especially their hulls, consist mainly of an aluminum-copper alloy called 2219-T6 aluminum alloy. It has an aluminum content of about 91 to 94 % making aluminum the major element on the ISS. This aluminum alloy posseses high strength, but also low weight, two important properties for space flight.

If not aluminum-copper alloy, what are starships like Voyager or the Enterprise made of? In Star Trek the fictional alloys ”duranium” and ”tritanium” are used for the construction of starship hulls. They are suitable for this task due to their extreme hardness. Nevertheless, it is not clear which metals these alloys contain. Could they have been developed from the 2219-T6 aluminum alloy used on the ISS?

Star Wars is much less clear on the materials used in spacecrafts or the Death Star. For this reason, it has often been assumed that materials known today are employed. When calculating what it would cost to build a Death Star, ifls supposed that it consists of the same materials as the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. This would mean that the Death Star is mainly constructed from steel (or iron) which is a strong material, but much heavier than aluminum-based alloys. However, since a Death Star would be constructed in space and is not meant to land on planets, its weight would be less important.

There is one technology Star Wars is more clear about. Its spacecrafts use an ion propulsion drive for their sub-light engines, also called thrusters. This technology has been used by NASA since the 1960s and new engines will be a vital part of future space missions, for example to Mars. Ion propulsion works by ionizing a gas, normally xenon. Positively charged xenon ions are created and accelerated towards a negatively charged grid (an electrode with holes). They leave the engine as an ion beam which produces thrust. This technology can provide higher speeds while using less material than chemical propellants.

This leads us to the faster-than-ligh-speed engines. They are called Hyperdrive in Star Wars and Warp Drive in Star Trek. Here, Star Wars is again more vague on the materials used. In Star Trek the material ”dilithium” is essential for the function of the Warp Drive. In reality, dilithium is a molecule composed of two lithium atoms. While it has been speculated that dilithium could also refer to an unknown isotope of the element lithium, it was shown in Start Trek: The Next Generation that dilithium is an element with the chemical symbol Dt and the atomic number 87 which belongs to francium in reality.

We should not forget other possibilities for space travel, like the Stargate, a device that can create artificial wormholes for instant transport to other planets in the Stargate series. It is constructed from ”naquadah”, a superheavy metal that does not naturally occur in our solar system. This element has been indicated to belong to the so-called island of stability. The stability of elements heavier than uranium decreases with increasing atomic number. But some very heavy elements with a ”magic” number of protons and neutrons are predicted to temporarily reverse this trend and show a greater stability.  These elements are expected to occur from the atomic number 120. The heaviest element discovered by humans so far is oganesson with the atomic number 118.

So, maybe we are not too far from naquadah and Stargates after all…

 

How to get an experiment into space

Image credit: Pioneer Venus Orbiter from NASA and NSSDC.

One thing I have been wondering for a while, ever since reading about a study in which Japanese Whiskey was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) for aging experiments: How can you get one of your own experiments into space? How does it work if you are not a Superman-like NASA astronaut, but only a small, mortal scientist?

The answer seems to be: Not too difficult. At least not, if you have a really good idea.

There are basically two different routes you can take to get your own research into orbit. Which one you choose will depend on if your experiment needs a human conducting it or if it can be run autonomously in a confined space. In the first case your experiment would be sent to the ISS where an astronaut would conduct it for you. The second scenario would be much cheaper as you could launch your experiment in a satellite and monitor it from earth.

If you want to have your research conducted on the ISS, you can do it by applying directly to NASA. Here you can find more detailed information about this. The biggest hurdle will mostly likely be to find enough funding. ESA also sometimes calls for proposals for experiments to be taken to the ISS. This process is similar to applying for beam time at, e.g. neutron source or synchrotron facilities.

You can more frequently submit proposals to ESA for experiments to be taken into orbit by satellites. Depending on the needs of your specific experiment, there are different options available. Another possibility would be the Do-it-yourself-approach, i.e. using your own home-made statellite. Today there are even relatively cheap satellites in the size of milk-cartons or smaller (called SmallSats or CubeSats) available for purchase from different companies. This technology is currently limited by too few launching possibilities (i.e. room on and number of launches), but it could significantly reduce the cost and bureaucratic hurdles for space-faring science experiments in the furture.

Now all you have to do is to come up with an experiment to send into space. Good luck!