Inside his immensely powerful armored suit, Iron Man is brilliant scientist and weapons designer Tony Stark. Created for Marvel Comics by authors Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, Stark and his armor-clad alter ego made their debut in March 1963. More than 40 years later, Iron Man hit the big screen in a series of blockbuster movies from 2008 on. A question many movie-goers ask is how Tony Stark's suit makes its energy, and whether it would be possible to generate energy in the same way in the real world.
Iron Man's Arc Reactor
In the movies, Iron Man's energy source is described as an "arc reactor," but unfortunately no such device exists in the real world. "The one aspect of Iron Man that puts it squarely in the realm of science fiction is the arc reactor, which is the size of a hockey puck and generates the power equivalent to three nuclear power plants," said James Kakalios, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with the Telegraph in September 2013. Tony Stark's original arc reactor was said to use the element palladium, leading New Scientist news editors to speculate that it might be "a cold-fusion nuclear reactor," in their article "Iron Man 2: How Science Cures Tony Stark's Heartache."
Most nuclear reactors involve nuclear fission, whereby heavy atoms are split into lighter ones. Such reactors generate harmful radioactivity, so they require heavy lead shielding that precludes their use as a personal power source. Another type of nuclear reaction is fusion, involving the synthesis of light atoms into heavier ones. In principle, fusion should be cleaner and safer than fission, but it faces huge practical obstacles. According to current theory, artificial fusion can only be produced at temperatures in excess of 100,000,000 degrees Celsius. A present-day fusion reactor is not the sort of thing that could be integrated into an armored suit.
Is Cold Fusion Possible?
In 1989, researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed to have observed nuclear fusion taking place at room temperature in a compact tabletop experiment. The process was dubbed "cold fusion," but the wider scientific community was extremely skeptical about its validity. Cold fusion is still a highly controversial topic, although research on the subject is continuing. The apparatus employed by Pons and Fleischmann made use of palladium electrodes, foreshadowing the use of the same element in Iron Man's fictional arc reactor.
Separating Fact from Fiction
The Iron Man movies are works of fiction, and there is no reason why the technology portrayed in them should be feasible in the real world. The small but enormously powerful "arc reactor" energy source, in particular, is unlikely to be a practical proposition at any time in the foreseeable future. However, nuclear fusion is real physics, and it does offer the possibility of making energy by a process analogous to that used by the fictional Tony Stark -- particularly if cold fusion turns out to be a genuine phenomenon.
- Chapman University: Iron Man: America's Cold War Champion and Charm Against the Communist Menace
- The Telegraph: Iron Man 3: The Technology Behind Tony Stark's Suit
- New Scientist: Iron Man 2: How Science Cures Tony Stark's Heartache
- Popular Mechanics: Why Don't We Have Fusion Power?
- World Nuclear Association: Nuclear Fusion Power
- Photo Credit Junko Kimura/Getty Images News/Getty Images
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