Iron Man, Reverse Engineering and the Future of Materials Science

04.24.2013 |

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Iron Man 3 isn’t out yet, but the first two movies (and decades of Iron Man comics) raise some interesting questions about how scientists can create and utilize new materials – like the energy source for Iron Man’s suit.

For those who have been shut off from pop culture, here’s a recap of the first two Iron Man movies: billionaire inventor Tony Stark creates a powered exoskeleton that gives him de facto superpowers. The suit is initially powered by the fictional “arc reactor,” which runs on palladium. But in Iron Man 2, Stark creates a mysterious new element to power the suit. (Vibranium?).

Stark develops this mystery element through an accelerated process that sees him using a variety of techniques to create and test the new material so quickly that he’s using it in his suit in less than a year.

“In the real world, it can take 20 to 30 years to move a new material from discovery to application,” says Suveen Mathaudhu, a program manager in the materials science division of the U.S. Army Research Office, adjunct materials science professor at NC State University and hardcore comics fan.

“To solve society’s problems, we need to find a way to do this more quickly, and we are. The materials science community is implementing systems much like Stark’s,” Mathaudhu says. And Mathaudhu has really thought about this – he is co-curator of an exhibit called “COMIC-Tanium: the Super Materials of the Super Heroes,” which is sponsored by the TMS Foundation and opens this summer at the Toonseum in Pittsburgh.

Art by Salvador Larroca

Art by Salvador Larroca

“For example, to create the new element, Stark has to visualize it in three dimensions,” Mathaudhu says. “But conventional technology usually only provides images in two dimensions. Over the past few years, materials researchers have been able to use technologies – like atom probe tomography – to give us 3-D images of materials at the atomic scale.”

These 3-D images give scientists a deeper understanding of a materials nanostructure, which in turn gives them insights into how those structures relate to a material’s properties. In a sense, it’s Materials Science 101.

There are four intertwined aspects of materials science. Processing, which is how a material is made. Structure, which is how a material’s atoms, molecules and crystals are arranged. Properties, which are how a material behaves (e.g., how strong it is, how elastic it is, etc.). And performance, which is the combination of a material’s properties that give the material its overall characteristics in various real-world environments.

Historically, the process of investigating these areas – which can take decades – didn’t begin until after a new material was discovered. But that’s changing. And Iron Man offers a great example.

“In Iron Man 2, Stark begins the process of creating his new element by defining the performance characteristics he’s looking for,” Mathaudhu explains. “He then searches for the atomic structure that would give a material the necessary properties. The last thing he does is synthesize the new material.”

That sort of reverse engineering is the new model for materials research. For example, a few years ago the Department of Defense was searching for a material that could be used in a new type of landing gear. Materials scientists used the specific characteristics DOD was looking for to reverse engineer a new iron alloy from scratch.

And this approach is getting support from high places. In June 2011, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy launched the Materials Genome Initiative, with the stated goal of doubling the speed “with which we discover, develop and manufacture new materials.” How do they want to do it? By pursuing Tony Stark’s paradigm of identifying what sort of material you want, and then figuring out how to make it.

“We’re a long way from creating a replicator, à la Star Trek, but reality is moving much closer to the realm of comics and science fiction,” Mathaudhu says.

This post first appeared on LiveScience and is copyright – all rights reserved.

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