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March 1, 2015 | by  | in Science |
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Can We Build an Iron Man?

Every Marvel movie fan has wanted a real-life Iron Man suit. Who wouldn’t want to fly around and shoot lasers out of their own personal human-sized tank? But my question is, under current technological constraints, can we build an Iron Man? Provided you can make the two constants of his armour work together, the suit itself and its power source, it seems plausible.

To start, we must first do some comic book archaeology and go back to his cave (with a box of scraps). When Stan Lee created him in 1963, the first implantable pacemaker was being tested, thanks to the earlier invention of the transistor in 1954. And so art imitates life; the power source was also a pacemaker that kept Tony Stark alive after being bombarded with shrapnel, and the suit was powered by transistors that augmented Iron Man’s power. As his writers update his armour with the times, we can look to real-life technology to determine whether or not Tony Stark’s suit is feasible.

In engineering terms, the suit is a “powered exoskeleton”, which already exist in costly but relatively efficient forms. Currently in use is the Human Universal Load Carrier made by Lockheed Martin, who must have had another Marvel hero in mind when they made the acronym. Its hydraulics increase the user’s strength to lift up to 200 pounds (90kg), by redistributing weight across its frame. Essentially, it’s a wearable forklift; it does the work, but it’s not much use in a fight. Yet.

Last year, the US army went public with the TALOS Project, which aims to make Iron Men out of American soldiers. The TALOS suit is a mix of defensive plates and “liquid armour”, a fluid substance that hardens under impacts like bullet fire. It is also installed with monitors that track a soldier’s vital signs, like heart rate and temperature.

So while a physical suit is possible, the other half of the Iron Man equation proves trickier to implement. The suits listed depend on hefty battery packs that eat up power quickly. Research is being done to increase their efficiency using integrated power supplies, with a battery in every part of the suit rather than a single power source. However, each supply must have a zero percent failure rate in order to be deemed efficient. Any malfunction in part of the suit could injure or kill the user. Tony Stark’s arc reactor may be a light that never goes out, but we have yet to find a energy source that can be made as portable and ever-lasting.

Which means that the superhero elements of Iron Man, powered by his limitless energy source, may have to stick to the silver screen and the printed page. Flight is next to impossible, as rockets cannot be made palm-sized and yet support the weight of one grown man and his gold-titanium alloy suit. The repulsors, described in one comic as “reactionless force projection”, break Newton’s Third Law. The additional sci-fi elements, such as nanites, aren’t even out of the lab.

But don’t despair, true believers. If anything, this should galvanise the desire to see something like this made real. Marvel chose Iron Man to kick off their movie-verse because he’s the superhero equivalent of Bill Gates or Elon Musk: a billionaire genius who makes the impossible possible through technology. He inspires us to make our world more like his. There are likely dozens of engineers in their own caves with boxes of scraps forging away to make marvels happen. If you have the heart to build it, then you can make an Iron Man.

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