Not unexpectedly, there’s a news item about science and Iron Man (it’s getting quite common for the science in movies to be promoted and discussed) just a few weeks before the movie Captain America: Civil War or, as it’s also known, Captain America vs. Iron Man opens in the US. From an April 26, 2016 news item on phys.org,
… how much of our favourite superheros’ power lies in science and how much is complete fiction?
As Iron Man’s name suggests, he wears a suit of “iron” which gives him his abilities—superhuman strength, flight and an arsenal of weapons—and protects him from harm.
In scientific parlance, the Iron man suit is an exoskeleton which is worn outside the body to enhance it.
An April 26, 2016 posting by Chris Marr on the ScienceNetwork Western Australia blog, which originated the news item, provides an interesting overview of exoskeletons and some of the scientific obstacles still to be overcome before they become commonplace,
In the 1960s, the first real powered exoskeleton appeared—a machine integrated with the human frame and movements which provided the wearer with 25 times his natural lifting capacity.
The major drawback then was that the unit itself weighed in at 680kg.
UWA [University of Western Australia] Professor Adrian Keating suggests that some of the technology seen in the latest Marvel blockbuster, such as controlling the exoskeleton with simple thoughts, will be available in the near future by leveraging ongoing advances of multi-disciplinary research teams.
“Dust grain-sized micromachines could be programmed to cooperate to form reconfigurable materials such as the retractable face mask, for example,” Prof Keating says.
However, all of these devices are in need of a power unit small enough to be carried yet providing enough capacity for more than a few minutes of superhuman use, he says.
Does anyone have a spare Arc Reactor?
Currently, most exoskeleton development has been for medical applications, with devices designed to give mobility to amputees and paraplegics, and there are a number in commercial production and use.
Dr Lei Cui, who lectures in Mechatronics at Curtin University, has recently developed both a hand and leg exoskeleton, designed for use by patients who have undergone surgery or have nerve dysfunction, spinal injuries or muscular dysfunction.
“Currently we use an internal battery that lasts about two hours in the glove, which can be programmed for only four different movement patterns,” Dr Cui says.
Dr Cui’s exoskeletons are made from plastic, making them light but offering little protection compared to the titanium exterior of Stark’s favourite suit.
It’s clear that we are a long way from being able to produce a working Iron Man suit at all, let alone one that flies, protects the wearer and has the capacity to fight back.
This is not the first time I’ve featured a science and pop culture story here. You can check out my April 28, 2014 posting for a story about how Captain America’s shield could be a supercapacitor (it also has a link to a North Carolina State University blog featuring science and other comic book heroes) and there is my May 6, 2013 post about Iron Man 3 and a real life injectable nano-network.
As for ScienceNetwork Western Australia, here’s more from their About SWNA page,
ScienceNetwork Western Australia (SNWA) is an online science news service devoted to sharing WA’s achievements in science and technology.
Our team of freelance writers work with in-house editors based at Scitech to bring you news from all fields of science, and from the research, government and private industry sectors working throughout the state. Our writers also produce profile stories on scientists. We collaborate with leading WA institutions to bring you Perspectives from prominent WA scientists and opinion leaders.
Since our commencement in 2003 we have grown to share WA’s stories with local, national and global audiences. Our articles are regularly republished in print and online media in the metropolitan and regional areas.
Bravo to the Western Australia government! I wish there initiatives of this type in Canada, the closest we have is the French language Agence Science-Presse supported by the Province of Québec.
I have written about Iron Man 3 before (my May 11, 2012 posting) in the context of its nanotechnology inspirations, specifically, the Extremis Armor. For anyone not familiar with the story, I have a few bits which will bring you up to speed before getting to Shuming Nie’s commentary and some recent research into injectable nano-networks, which seems highly relevant to the Iron Man 3 discourse. First, here’s an excerpt from my May 11, 2012 posting,
In a search for Extremis, I found out that this story reboots the Iron Man mythology by incorporating nanotechnology and alchemy to create a new armor, the Extremis Armor, from the Extremis Armor website (I strongly suggest going to the website and reading the full text which includes a number of illustrative images if you find this sort of thing interesting),
When a bio-tech weapon of mass destruction was unleashed, Tony Stark threw himself onto the bleeding edge between science and alchemy, combining nanotechnology and his Iron Man armor. The result, which debuted in Iron Man, Vol. IV, issue 5, was the Extremis Armor, Model XXXII, Mark I, which made him the most powerful hero in the world–but not without a price.
There were two key parts to this Extremis-enhanced suit. The first part is the golden Undersheath, the protective interface between Stark’s nervous system and the second chief part, the External Suit Devices (ESDs), a.k.a. the red armor plating.
The Undersheath to the Iron Man suit components was super-compressed and stored in the hollows of Stark’s bones. The sheath material exited through skeletal pores and slid between all cells to self-assemble a new “skin” around him. This skin provides a complete interface to the Iron Man suit components and can perform numerous other functions. (The process in reverse withdrew the Undersheath back into these specially modified areas of Tony Stark’s bone marrow tissue.)
The Undersheath is a nano-network that incorporates peptide-peptide logic (PPL), a molecular computational system made of superconducting plastic impregnated molecular chains. [my emphasis added for May.6.13 posting] The PPL handles, among other things: memory, critical logic paths, comparative “truth” tables, automatic response look-up tables, data storage, communication, and external sensing material interface.
The lattice assembly is a stress-compression truss with powered interstitial joints. This can surround the PPL material and guide it through Stark’s body. This steerable, motile lattice framework is commanded by the PPL molecule computational mentality. The metallic component to the lattice is a controlled mimetic artifact that can take on the characteristics of most elements. Even unusual combinations of behaviors such as extreme hardness and flexibility.
The combination of the two nano-scale materials allows for a very dense non-traditional computer that can change the fabric of its design in very powerful ways. The incorporation of the Undersheath in Stark’s entire nervous system renders reflex-level computer responses to pan-spectrum stimuli.
Anthony Stark’s Bio/Metalo-Mimetic Material concept is a radical departure from the traditional solid-state underpinnings of his prior Iron Man suit designs. Making use of nano-scale assembly technology, “smart” molecules can be made atom by atom. The design allows for simple computers to be linked into a massive parallel computer that synthesizes human thought protocols.
The External Suit Devices (ESDs), the red armor plates, were made via mega-nano technology that has assembled atoms into large, discreet effectors. This allows for the plates to be collapsable to very small volumes for easy storage and carried in Stark’s briefcase. The ESDs were commanded by the Undersheath and were self-powered by high-capacity Kasimer plates. They were equipped with large arrays of nano-fans that allow flight. Armoring-up was done by drawing the suit to Stark via a vectored repulsor field, just lightly pushing them from different angles.
The armor’s memory-metal technology renders it lightweight and flexible while not in use, but extremely durable when polarized. The armor was strong, of course, but it could be made even stronger by rerouting repulsor input to reinforce the armor’s mass.
Stark’s skin is now a part of the suit, when engaged. [emphasis mine] Comfort is relative because the suit rapidly responds to any discomfort, from impacts to high temperatures, from itching to scratching. The suit’s protocols include semi-autonomy when needed. Where Stark ends and the suit begins is flexible. The exact nature of the artificial Extremis Virus is not known (especially because Stark recompiled the dose, then tweaked the nutrients and suspended metals, radically altering Maya Hansen’s [the character Rebecca Hall will reputedly play] formulations). The effect it has had on Stark’s body is to allow the presence of so much alien material within his body without trauma.
Because of the bio-interface between Tony and the armor, he could utilize the suit to its fullest potential and also instantly access computers and any digital system worldwide at the speed of thought. He was biologically integrated with his armor, one with it, imbued with unprecedented powers and abilities. He channeled and processed data, emergency signals, and satellite reconnaissance from every law enforcement, military, and intelligence service in the world–in his head. He could send electronic signals and make phone calls with his mind. He could see through satellites. Plus he had the ability to transmit whatever he saw (from his visual cortex) to other people’s display screens. The computer’s cybernetic link enables him to operate all of the armor’s functions, as well as providing a remote link to other computers (as Stark is now part of the armor this connection is seamless). The armor’s system was connected to the global mainframe via StarkTech servers.
Extremis has been referred to as a “virus” constantly since the story. The verbatim description offered by its inventor Maya Hansen, goes: “…Extremis is a super-soldier solution. It’s a bio-electronics package, fitted into a few billion graphite nanotubes and suspended in a carrier fluid. [emphasis mine] A magic bullet, like the original super-soldier serum—all fitted into a single injection. It hacks the body’s repair center—the part of the brain that keeps a complete blue print of the human body. When we’re injured, we refer to that area of the brain to heal properly. Extremis rewrites the repair center. In the first stage, the body essentially becomes an open wound. The normal human blueprint is being replaced with the Extremis blueprint. The brain is being told the body is wrong. Extremis protocol dictates that the subject be placed on life support and intravenously fed nutrients at this point. For the next two or three days, the patient remains unconscious within a cocoon of scabs. (…) Extremis uses the nutrients and body mass to grow new organs. Better ones…”
Apparently, back in the early days of genetic engineering, a brilliant, zit-faced scientist (Guy Pearce) offered Tony a piece of a lucrative patent that had the potential to alter the human body, and even regenerate amputated limbs.
Tony walked away from the offer as well as the pretty girl (Rebecca Hall) who worked for the genetic engineer, but in the opening sequence, we see the technology was successfully developed and tested. It makes people superhuman, but it can also make them spontaneously combust, leaving great craters and human casualties behind.
Now for the video commentary, Dr. Shuming Nie, Biomedical Engineering at Emory University, offers some scientific insight into the science and the fiction of ‘extremis’ as per Iron Man 3 in his YouTube video,
Keeping on the science theme, researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and other institutions announced an injectable nano-network for diabetics in a May 3, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,
In a promising development for diabetes treatment, researchers have developed a network of nanoscale particles that can be injected into the body and release insulin when blood-sugar levels rise, maintaining normal blood sugar levels for more than a week in animal-based laboratory tests. The work was done by researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Children’s Hospital Boston.
“We’ve created a ‘smart’ system that is injected into the body and responds to changes in blood sugar by releasing insulin, effectively controlling blood-sugar levels,” says Dr. Zhen Gu, lead author of a paper describing the work and an assistant professor in the joint biomedical engineering program at NC State and UNC Chapel Hill. “We’ve tested the technology in mice, and one injection was able to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range for up to 10 days.”
Here’s how the smart system is achieved,
The new, injectable nano-network is composed of a mixture containing nanoparticles with a solid core of insulin, modified dextran and glucose oxidase enzymes. When the enzymes are exposed to high glucose levels they effectively convert glucose into gluconic acid, which breaks down the modified dextran and releases the insulin. The insulin then brings the glucose levels under control. The gluconic acid and dextran are fully biocompatible and dissolve in the body.
Each of these nanoparticle cores is given either a positively charged or negatively charged biocompatible coating. The positively charged coatings are made of chitosan (a material normally found in shrimp shells), while the negatively charged coatings are made of alginate (a material normally found in seaweed).
When the solution of coated nanoparticles is mixed together, the positively and negatively charged coatings are attracted to each other to form a “nano-network.” Once injected into the subcutaneous layer of the skin, the nano-network holds the nanoparticles together and prevents them from dispersing throughout the body. Both the nano-network and the coatings are porous, allowing blood – and blood sugar – to reach the nanoparticle cores.
“This technology effectively creates a ‘closed-loop’ system that mimics the activity of the pancreas in a healthy patient, releasing insulin in response to glucose level changes,” Gu says. “This has the potential to improve the health and quality of life of diabetes patients.”
For anyone who’s interested in researching further, heres’ a citation for and a link to the paper,
The paper is behind a paywall. Meanwhile, there are discussions about moving these injectable nano-networks into human clinical trials. As Nie notes, Iron Man 3 hints at new medical technologies which will be achievable in the next 10 or so years, although we may have to wait 100 to 150 years for Extremis armor.