Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Physics of Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010)

SPOILER ALERT! Details about Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010) below

Iron Man and Iron Man 2 contain many fantastic scifi elements, including the arc reactor, chemical poisoning, and creating new elements using particle beams. In this post I investigate the scientific basis of these technologies and biological effects. For example: Is it possible to make an arc reactor? Yes and no! I explain more after the jump.

The Arc Reactor

When Tony Stark goes to Afghanistan to give a weapons demonstration he is wounded and captured. His captors put him in a cave and demand that he build them a missile. While in the cave he builds what he calls an "arc reactor" that provides power to his body and prevents the shrapnel in his chest from inching closer to his heart.

To clarify something, when he says "arc reactor" he really means mini fusion reactor. An arc reactor is another scientific device that I believe is used in the doping of metals and is used in the production of bucykballs. Buckyballs are super cool spherical molecules made from 60 carbon atoms. They're the largest molecules that have been shown to exhibit wave-particle duality. Anyway, back to Iron Man...
Tony Stark with the arc reactor embedded in his chest

Realistic because:
  • Fusion is a real source of energy. In the sun's core Hydrogen atoms fuse together to produce Helium and release energy. This is eventually received by the earth in the form of solar energy.
A diagram of the fusion process

  • We have achieved fusion on earth in tokamak devices. These are donut-shaped nuclear fusion reactors. Tony Stark's "arc reactor" shape is consistent with the shape used to achieve fusion in research reactors around the world.
Unrealistic because:
  • The "arc reactor" could not be as small as Tony Stark makes it. Current models of fusion plasmas tell physicists that sustained fusion should be achievable if we scale up the size of the reactor. In France ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is being built. A diagram of ITER is shown below. The physics of scaling something like a fusion reactor down to the size of something that can be fit into a person's hand is presently unfathomable. For more information, see the Lawson Criterion.
  • Magnetically confined fusion required very powerful magnets. These magnets have to be cooled to extremely low temperatures, about -200 degrees Celsius or -328 degrees Fahrenheit. It would be impossible for Tony Stark to keep the magnets cold and keep himself at body temperature.
  • The magnets produce very high magnetic fields. This means that the shrapnel would be ripped right out of his body.
  • He would need to have a source of Deuterium and maybe Tritium. Deuterium-Tritium fusion, shown in the fusion image above, is the most easily attainable form of fusion. There are only a few small supplies of Tritium in the world, so it would be nearly impossible for him to get a source in a cave... Also, Deuterium is found naturally occurring in water with about 1 in 3200 water molecules containing Deuterium, but Tony would need a method of separating the Deuterium from the rest of the water. This is not a trivial process.

Palladium Poisoning

In Iron Man 2 Tony gets palladium poisoning and needs to find a replacement element for his arc reactor.

Realistic because:
  • Palladium poisoning actually occurs
  • Old fusion reactor designs did often use palladium
Unrealistic because:
  • Present fusion reactor designs do not use much palladium
  • The symptoms of palladium poisoning are a little different than exhibited in the movie. While difficulty breathing, wheezing, and a cough are all symptoms the raised veins or raised dark lines on Tony's skin are not how it manifests. It typically looks like a bad red rash, with hives all over the skin.

Creating New Elements with Particle Beams

In Iron Man 2 when the palladium poisoning begins to compromise Tony’s health, he searches for an element that can take its place in the arc reactor.

Realistic because:
  • It is possible for Tony Stark to discover a new element by using a particle beam. This is how many man-made elements were discovered.
  • There could theoretically be an “island of stability” of elements heavier than presently known, though it is unlikely. Most heavy elements are very unstable, decaying to other elements almost instantly.
Unrealistic because:
  • It’s unlikely that there is a stable element with mass larger than those that have currently been discovered. If he were to synthesize a new element by bombarding a material with a particle beam then it is almost guaranteed to be extremely unstable, meaning that by the time he could check to see what it is it would have decayed to another element.
  • The particle beam would almost certainly not be visible, like it is in the movie.
  • The beam would not cut through the materials in his lab. The density of particles in the beam would not be great enough to cut through the metal structures in his lab. Particle beams aim to have the particles in the beam absorbed by the nucleus of the targeted material so as to create new elements, or to understand known elements.
Other good blogs about the physics behind Iron Man:


  1. u r missing very important point here.
    in the first movie, tony stark uses palladium from the missiles,(remember the scene when he ask that doctor to disassemble other missiles) and not some hydrogen isotopes like u mentioned above.
    i am not a physicist, but tony has a AI enable supercomputer at his disposal (jarvis) who is continuously analyzing his experiments in real time, but still i agree that making a new element cud not be that easy...

  2. Right, he did use palladium, which has been considered as a possible source for cold fusion because of its large neutron cross section and decay properties. It's still not actually a feasible method of energy production.

  3. All Things are Possible- Nicola Tesla