Iron Man 2's Science & Tech Are Grounded in Reality—Mostly

By Andrew Moseman | May 7, 2010 12:12 pm

Iron Man 2It’s big, it’s loud, it’s Iron Man 2, and it opens today.

Like a lot of summer blockbusters, this sequel stretches the laws of physics and the capabilities of modern technology. But, admirably, a lot of the tech in Iron Man 2 is grounded in fact.

Spoiler Alert! Read on at your own risk.

Palladium and particle colliders

Being Iron Man is killing Tony Stark. As this sequel begins, the palladium core that powers the suit and keeps Stark alive is raising toxicity levels in his bloodstream to alarming highs. It’s not hard to see why Iron Man would try palladium—the now-infamous cold fusion experiments that created a storm of hype in 1989 relied on the metal. And it’s true that palladium does have some toxicity, though it’s been used in alloys for dentistry and jewelry-making.

Having exhausted the known elements in the search for a better power source, Stark, ever the DIY enthusiast, builds a particle collider in his workshop. This is actually not crazy: Physicist Todd Satogata of Brookhaven National Lab says you can build tiny particle colliders; even whiz-kid teenagers do it.

Powering the accelerator, however, might be an issue. 2.5 miles long, Brookhaven’s superconducting collider needs 10 to 15 megawatts of power—enough for 10,000 or 15,000 homes. “For Stark to run his accelerator, he’s gotta make a deal with his power company or he’s gotta have some sort of serious power plant in his backyard,” Satogata says [Popular Mechanics].

In addition, Stark doesn’t appear to have the magnets needed to focus a beam as tightly as he does in the film, where it shreds his shop before he gets it focused in the right place. And, as we covered with the recent discovery of element 117, the ultra-heavy lab-created elements that Stark  could have created in his accelerator don’t last long. However, back in 1994 when only 106 elements dotted the periodic table, DISCOVER discussed the idea some physicists have of an “island of stability” where elements we’ve yet to discover/create might be able to exist in a stable way. Perhaps Tony found it.

The guts of the suit

After a long quest, the U.S. military gets its hands on Stark’s most magnificent piece of technology, the Iron Man suit. What they saw when they looked inside was the work of special effect wiz Clark Schaffer.

The silvery suit, originally seen in the first “Iron Man,” is shown again in the new movie in an “autopsy” scene in which the government begins tearing it apart to see how it works. “[The filmmakers] wanted it to look like what you see under the skin of a jet,” said Schaffer, who, along with friend and modeler Randy Cooper, worked on the suit in Los Angeles for six weeks. “There’s an aesthetic to it. I try to make it look as functional and practical as possible but also something that has beauty to it. That was my baby” [Salt Lake Tribune].

But how might the Iron Man suit be able to stand up to the punishment Stark continually receives? Tech News Daily proposes that he took advantage of something scientists are developing now: carbon nanotube foam with great cushioning power.

Plasma weaponry

Iron Man’s nemesis in this second installment is Ivan Vanko, played by the villainous and murky Mickey Rourke, who you might have seen in previews stalking around a racetrack with seemingly electrified prostheses attached to his arms. The explanation in the film is hand-waved a bit, but it seems Vanko’s weapons rely on plasma.

Scientists actually are developing weapons based on plasma, such as the StunStrike, which essentially fires a bolt of lightning, creating an electrical charge through a stream of plasma. Researchers have recently even created what appears to be ball lightning in microwave ovens, which Iron Man’s “repulsor blasts” resemble [Tech News Daily].

Drones and hacking

Vanko isn’t happy with just amazing plasma tentacles, though. Working for Stark’s rival military-industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), he develops a horde of ghastly humanoid drones for each branch of the military. That, of course, is straight out of science fact—our military relies increasing on robots, be they unmanned aerial vehicles, bots on the ground that investigate roadside bombs, or even unmanned subs currently under development.

He’s a hacker, too, seizing control of an Iron Man suit worn by Don Cheadle as Stark sidekick James Rhodes. As DISCOVER covered in December, that’s a real-life worry, too. Hackers figured out how to steal the video feeds from our Predator drones because of an encryption lapse at one step in the process.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: 10 Obscure Elements That Are Most Important Than You’d Think (gallery)
DISCOVER: An Island of Stability
DISCOVER: Attaining Superhero Strength in Real Life, and 2 more amazing science projects
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction presents the best and worst use of science in sci-fi films
80beats: A Hack of the Drones: Insurgents Spy on Spy Planes with $26 Software
Bad Astronomy: Iron Man = Win

  • nick

    This may be odd, but the only thing that really bothers me about the whole science behind the Iron Man is the money / manpower involved. Eccentric genius billionaire, well, you’re not a billionaire for being stupid, but the US military spends half a trillion dollars or so, yearly, on the military (regular budget plus special war appropriations is closer to 3/4th trillion, though it may have gone down since the last time I bothered to check) so I have a hard time believing anyone could be rich enough to out-science them. You’d have to assemble most of the worlds billionaires and drain their bank accounts to outspend the US military in one year.

    Maybe it’s the booze? Maybe that gives him superpowers that allows him to out science DARPA?

  • LincolnX

    Perhaps the wording, “played by the villainous and murky Mickey Rourke” should be reconsidered? The role was played villainously by the (as far as I know) non-villainous Mickey Rourke…

  • Luddite

    It’s always fun to consider how hi-tech movies reflect real-world advances. But, there’s a little piece of old tech called Newton’s Laws of Motion, which I am quite sure would render Tony Stark a quivering bag of gelatin the very first time he crashes to the ground in his armor. I can’t see that it matters how well the body is “cushioned” by something like foam, when the organs and bones inside the body will continue at whatever velocity the armor is traveling when it comes to the very dramatic crashing halts we see on the screen. Still, I used to enjoy the 6 million dollar man as a child even though I knew that the first time he lifted something like a car the weight would probably snap his (non-bionic) spine, and Superman even though things Superman might lift would crumble apart under their own weight. Still, it feeds our dreams…

  • Arun Raj

    lol… i love his lab. Elvis who he keeps talking to ..and then the wireframe stuff and this hologrpahic devices? can they be made?

  • Jon

    @nick – Regular people “out science” the military all the time. The military then either buys the technology, or literally steals it.

  • shiva

    the tech in the film made me feel that the director boarded a time machine for a serious trip into future… to make this film…..

  • Morgdah

    It is movies like this one that spur even more greatness from Human Evolution… our minds think of something and then procede to make it, even if it takes decades even centuries… Look at Star Trek and the show “How William Shatner Changed the World”
    Communcator = Cell Phone
    space travel, faster than light travel that is, very close to reality….
    30 – 40 years ago, could anyone of us even FATHOMED half of today’s advancements? I dare say not.

  • Vivek

    @Arun Raj
    He doesn’t talk to Elvis. He’s Jarvis, originally Iron man’s butler. They didn’t want it to look too much like Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth. So Jarvis [Just a Rather very Intelligent System. :)

  • Matt T

    @Jon (#5): “The military then either buys the technology, or literally steals it.” Ok…fact check time. What technology has the US military “literally” stolen. Meaning, what tech are they using, or have they EVER used, without paying for?
    Incidentally, the US military also pays for a lot of development of premature technology…literally.

  • Ted

    Case in point for Matt T’s comment:

    Similar to the first Iron Man movie, portable power seems to be a limitation…

  • Christian

    i would like a see through cell phone

  • Christian

    audi R8 could be upgraded to something more like a 2010 280zx concept

  • Jeff the Baptist

    “Eccentric genius billionaire, well, you’re not a billionaire for being stupid, but the US military spends half a trillion dollars or so, yearly, on the military (regular budget plus special war appropriations is closer to 3/4th trillion, though it may have gone down since the last time I bothered to check) so I have a hard time believing anyone could be rich enough to out-science them.”

    The vast majority of that money goes to pay salaries, maintenance and upkeep on existing systems, and keeping existing bases operating. Actual R&D expenditures are probably in the ~$10 billion range, which is still a whole lot of money but not anywhere near a half-trillion. When you consider that Stark is developing the armor for himself by himself and therefore has zero red tape and very little overhead, he can operate very inexpensively in comparison to any government development operation.

    The real issue is that having one man design anything that complex in a short time as shown in the film is ridiculous. He’d have to farm out production somehow. There are just too many little details down in the subsystems for Stark to handle them all himself.

  • Michael Boardman

    Tony Stark trains with a high tech racing simulator. There is some speculation that Stark taking over for qualifying driver DeFilipo was a last minute decision, however there are clues that Tony always intended to drive the car himself and only had an alternate driver due to his poisoning from palladium toxicity. The evidence supporting this is real technology, a SimCraft APEX sc830 racing simulator prominent in Stark’s workshop.

    Like any serious race driver, Tony Stark would have undergone an intense training regimen and supplementing actual on-track time with a high tech motion simulator fits his character perfectly. In fact, in light of F1’s on-track testing restrictions, this cutting edge alternative would be the way to gain a competitive edge in modern motorsports. This Stark Industries Motion Craft shows up in three scenes in Tony’s workshop, both before and after the events in Monaco.

  • Michael Wendell

    My biggest gripe with the series, is that if Tony Stark wanted to really make a difference in the world, and bring peace to the planet, he would have released the Arc Reactor into the public domain. Since most conflicts are resource based, and most resources really boil down to energy (cheap energy allows greater food yields, etc.), access to a portable power supply of that magnitude would solve almost every world conflict within a few short years, and probably go a long way towards eliminating poverty and world hunger to boot.

    Regarding comment 14 from Michael Boardman… the in-film intros for the Monaco race noted that it was an Historic Grand Prix, as opposed to a true F1 race. Although many owners of historic race cars hire drivers, some are definitely owner-driven. Historics can be hard fought, but because of the value and irreplaceability of the cars, nobody really drives at ten-tenths.

  • Will P.

    Actually, the Doppler Radar System was invented/ developed by a civilian Oklahoma meteorologist, and consequemntly STOLEN by the USAF. Patent rights mean nothing to Uncle Sam.

  • http://none freedom velez

    wow,these technology can make machine turns into faster a little more if you know what i mean those looks like a new hero will come more faster more technology and more better than iron man 2 can appreciate fans damn what if iron man has a enemy like alien more disturbing than disgusting appetite, totally gross more on if iron man can truely be faster than a speeding bullet thats a more wow, i say something cooking its the fans can decide.

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    I can’t Believe This!!!! DON’T CLICK

  • Damel

    To nick or the guy who posted the first comment whatever your name is (no offence intended honestly)
    in the world of iron man tony stark IS the science of the military, they get all of their ingenius weapons from him so logically he SHOULD be able to out science them


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