The metal that makes Wolverine’s claws virtually indestructible may be a reality sooner than you think.
If you know anything about the superhero Wolverine, you know that he has both retractable claws and a mutant power that allows him to heal from virtually any injury. In the comics, a Canadian government project called Weapon X laced his bones with a metal called adamantium, creating the metal-clawed hero most of us are familiar with.
Adamantium is, of course, not real. But in the Marvel universe (including the new Wolverine movie coming out this month) it is a steel alloy that is one of the most indestructible materials on Earth – capable of easily cutting through most other types of steel.
And adamantium was the product of failed attempts to re-create the material in Captain America’s shield. Both are alloys, composed of combinations of multiple component materials. And both contain steel and vibranium (also fictional).
Steel itself is an alloy, consisting in its most basic form of iron and trace amounts of carbon. But other materials can be added to alter the steel’s properties, making it stronger, more flexible or more resistant to corrosion.
And while no one outside the Marvel universe has created adamantium (yet), researchers are still constantly tweaking the formulas for steel production to devise metal alloys with more desirable characteristics.
“In the comics, both Captain America’s shield and adamantium resulted from efforts to develop new metals for national defense. In the real world, new iron alloys are created for a wide range of applications,” 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.
“One such advance came in 2008, when researchers at NC State developed an iron alloy that was extremely strong and had high thermal stability,” Mathaudhu says. Strength is defined here as a material’s ability to withstand forces without deforming or breaking. Thermal stability is a material’s ability to retain its strength at high temperatures (up to 1300 degrees Celsius, in this instance).
“Those characteristics are important, because the stronger a material is the less of it you need,” Mathaudhu says. “So a stronger material that can withstand high heat holds promise for use in extreme environments.” Think of lightweight engines or support structures in airplanes or automobiles. Less weight means more fuel efficiency.
And the development of new alloys is accelerating. Researchers are now using computational models to design alloys that have customized design characteristics: the precise blend of strength, toughness and flexibility needed to do a specific job. The data those models produce allows materials scientists to determine which elements need to be incorporated into an iron alloy – and which processing steps will be needed to produce the desired alloy product.
We have yet to create an indestructible alloy, but we are getting ever closer to alloys that might rival adamantium.
So look out, Logan. (Or James Howlett, or whatever you’re calling yourself these days.)