The Science of The Invinsible Iron Man
Iron Man soars through the air, around enemy fighters as he locks onto their heat signature. His jet boots and stabilizers twirls him about as he moves faster than an M16 as his automatic guiding systems get a lock. Iron Man fires. Three air-to-air missiles are released from his shoulder pad and they hit home. One plane down; one to go. But where is it?
His suit tells him that the enemy fighter had snuck up behind him. He halts his jets and allows the forward-moving plane to pass him. A repulsor blast from his palm-cylinders should take it out quick. He aims, and fires the beam of energy. The beam cuts the plane’s wing in two, sending it to its spiraling death. Iron Man has saved the day again!
Tony Stark, brilliant computer engineer and heir to Stark Industries, was injured by a booby trap and captured by Wong-Chu and his hired muscle. The booby trap launched shrapnel into his heart, and it would’ve killed him
had he (and Ho Yinsen) not discovered a way to keep the shrapnel from moving further into his heart. In the original comics they used a magnetic plate that needed to be recharged quite often to stop the shrapnel from killing Stark. The movie embellished a little, and skipped a few steps in the development of his iron suit, but the end result was the same: Tony Stark created a protective suit that had both offensive and defensive capabilities, thus The Invincible Iron Man was born! After heart surgery, Stark continued to wear the suit as a means to protect the innocent, and at one point he even lost the use of his legs, but the Iron Man suit’s implants allowed him to walk once more. Over the years the suit became more sophisticated, allowing him to do more than any hero could. His suit could even function without him in it, by way of remote control.
Is such a suit of armor feasible in the modern world (the idea was created in the early 60’s)? Could a suit of armor be made, carrying similar weapons and defensive measures? What is a repulsor beam, and can we replicate it? And, what about his oxygen supply, and his seemingly endless power supply, and his cooling system, and his heating system, and, what about all of those modified suits? Wow! So many questions, and so little blog space to answer them. Let’s suit up and get ‘er started!
Technology is getting smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller… Sorry. Perhaps, five to ten years ago, we might have had trouble believing that Stark could fit all of those tiny gadgets into a suit that seems to hug him like a dancer’s tights. Certainly, his suit’s mainframe, its targeting software, its stabilizer technology, terrabytes of memory, and mom’s digital recipe for apple pie could all fit in the palm of his hand (if his repulsor blasters weren’t there already). Just look at your iPhone or Android with a Wolfram Alpha app installed (or Siri, you sexy binary fiend, you), and you will see enough technology and software that would easily outcompete the nineties (and even, turn of the century) Iron Man. The software and the A.I. isn’t so unbelievable anymore.
You want to talk ‘unbelievable’, then lets have a look at those flight boots of his, or the repulsor beams. How much energy do you think it would take to power those hand and foot peripherals? I don’t see any gas tanks on Iron Man, nor do I know of anything similar to the ‘Arc Reactor’ that explained away his energy source in the movie. Yes, I get it: suspension of disbelief. The chemical reaction required to power his suit would be impossible for a piece of equipment the size of the Arc Reactor. I mean, he isn’t splitting atoms, is he?
I found an forum where one anonymous donor (calling him/herself The Computer Nerd) shed a little light on the predicament:
“It seems like the Arc Reactor is powered by a[n] electromagnetic source of energy (probably from the sun or Iron Man’s food). It also seems like it’s also powered by decayed particles of molecular energy [that] form the plasma needed to provide Iron Man with supernatural strength and protection. However, in reality, an electromagnet would [have to] be gigantic to produce [that kind of] subatomic mutation within the suit. Also, the device needed to build a subatomic structure would be much too heavy, since it requires large machines to manipulate microscopic matter.”
This was written four years ago, and technology certainly has changed since then, but I think that he makes a valid point. One thing that I thought was funny, was also pointed out by ‘Ioerr’ of that same forum when he/she says:
“The one thing that made me laugh was when we saw the “Arc Reactor” pulled out, and it became apparent that all the energy to run this suit was being drawn out through one tiny little wire, about big enough for the battery on a transistor radio.”
So the boots and lightning-bolts are out… Let’s move on to the shielding. As far as I know, energy shields (force fields) are still a thing of fiction. There have been many attempts to replicate the Star Trek-like force field, and I have read several articles on what the army is trying to develop. Thus far, most have focused on electromagnetism. An article in The Telegraph, written two years ago discussed the British Militaries’ efforts to create a Star Trek-style force field. Author Richard Grey explains, “when a threat from incoming fire is detected by the vehicle, the energy stored in the super-capacitor can be rapidly dumped onto the metal plating on the outside of the vehicle, producing a strong electromagnetic field.” He goes on to mention that the countermeasure would require split-second timing in order to repel enemy fire — and so this kind of defensive measure is still impractical at this stage.
Well, there is still magnetism. If you’ve never done this in 3rd grade, try putting two north ends of two magnets together. You’ll be able to feel a force push them apart. An article in The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC, not SFTC) discusses the concept of replicating the Earth’s magnetosphere that protects us from harmful radiation due to solar storms. Initial findings suggested that to recreate a type of ‘magnetic bubble’ similar to the magnetosphere, it would have to be extremely large (greater than 100km wide). More recent experiments have recreated smaller pockets in solar winds that were generated in a laboratory. All of these findings can be found at http://www.stfc.ac.uk/News+and+Events/5512.aspx, and (as you can imagine) are still in the very early stages of development.
So the shields are out too… for now, but the concept isn’t beyond belief. The armor itself, of course, could be extremely durable without energy shields (I don’t even recall Iron Man using a force field in the movie). As we saw in the Superman’s Invulnerability chapter, having very thin, but durable material is not completely out of the question. I don’t really think Iron Man is made only of iron…
Let’s move on to the various other peripherals:
Once in a while you’ll see things popping out of Iron Man’s arms or legs — things like missiles or grapple guns. Where in the world are those things stored when not in use? Are they inside his body? Unless his suit is extremely thick, there isn’t any room for pop-out accessories. War Machine (an Iron Man variant) carried his peripherals outside of his suit; I can believe that a War Machine is possible, but Iron Man and his pocket-of-infinite-missiles is just, well… I dunno ‘bout that.
What about the oxygen supply? Occasionally, Iron Man journeys under the great, briny blue, or sometimes he takes a trip into space. Let’s not even talk about pressure control or the fact that he might implode at certain depths; let’s discuss, instead, his amazing supply of oxygen. Where does he keep his oxygen? You guessed it: the same place he keeps his fuel supply! I have seen many fictional devices that seemingly convert the gases in the atmosphere to breathable air, and there exists many portable oxygen tanks that are very small indeed. Remember “Phantom Menace” when Obi-Wan pulls out his oxygen-converter? Yeah, still fiction, not fact.
What about his super strength? This aspect of Stark’s suit remains largely unexplained; however one might attribute his strength to hydraulics and other forms of artificial muscle (but, I see no pistons on rods attached to his arms and legs… well, the first Iron Man suit in the movie had them, and it was the most feasible suit of them all).
So no long-term propulsion, no blasters, no shielding, no missiles (War Machine may keep his), no hydraulic pistons in site (but we can add them to our recreation), no real oxygen supply, and never mind the pressure gauges or atmospheric controls. What are we left with? A colourful suit of armor with a good memory core. Well I guess that answers the original question: we’re still quite far away from creating a suit of armor that is similar to Tony Stark’s.
NOTE: See Alex Waller’s “Feasibility of Iron Man’s Suit” in his blog The Abstract Engineer for more insight. He does a really good job getting into the nitty-gritty of it.
 Cited from Yahoo Answers, “Is it possible to create Ironman’s Arc Reactor?” authored by ‘Just Mike’. The site was visited on September 25, 2012. The article was written four years prior.
 http://www.telegraph.co.uk /technology/news/7487740/Star-Trek-style-force-field-armour-being-developed-by-military-scientists.html