Reverse Engineering Iron Man’s Arc Reactor

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By Tim Johnson – Sr. Mechanical Design Engineer

Hollywood script writers have been commissioned for psychological studies of terrorists, come up with forward-thinking and (way) outside-the-box solutions to many social and technological boundaries and have long inspired engineers to bring to life seemingly impossible technologies.

In the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark prevents shrapnel from reaching his heart by using his “Arc Reactor” technology, which (conveniently) also serves to provide enough power to run his exoskeleton and super-computer. This gives him super strength and the ability to fly, amongst many other awesome abilities. If you’re not familiar with him, you need to watch the movie.

Marvel, the creators of Iron Man, describe the arc reactor as running off of palladium and “Repulsor Ray” technology. It is also said to generate upwards of three gigajoules of energy per second. Initially, it was thought that nuclear fusion could be at work here. Fusion generators have been under development for many decades and although they have not been usable as of yet, engineers, the government and military are hopeful that they will be available within the next 20 years. However, even then, the reactors will be the size of very large buildings and not something the size of a hockey puck as in Iron Man’s “Arc Reactor”.

So that’s one opinion. Other thoughts in the field of “science fiction conjecture” lead us to wonder if maybe Tony Stark has created a type of Beta-Voltaic battery. As shown in a patent by Marvin Tan Xing Haw (specifically inspired by the Arc Reactor), this battery uses beta particles from decaying radioisotopes (Uranium-235) in conjunction with semiconductor diodes to create a sort of fission chain reaction resulting in a DC electromotive force, or DC current.

Another theory is that of the Tokamak reactor which is used in some fusion research as a method of containing plasma energy into the shape of a torus using a magnetic field which might give this reactor a remarkably similar look to the one implanted into Tony Stark’s chest.

One other potential technology that is important to mention here is that of the LENR or Lattice Energy Nuclear Reactor, which is a scaled-down form of cold fusion, presenting potential future possibilities of installing these reactors in homes, cars and airplanes. Unlike other fission or fusion reactors, LENR technology uses the “weak nuclear force” as opposed to the “strong nuclear force”. By creating a lattice of nickel atoms and introducing hydrogen at a high frequency (5-30 THz) they are able to create collisions of particles that do not merge atomic nuclei, like in fusion, but actually strip electrons from the nickel and force them into the hydrogen ions. This creates a slow-moving neutron and simultaneously changes the nickel into copper and release a great deal of energy in the process. Since there are no fast-moving or colliding nuclei, the masses and equipment necessary for this process can be much smaller than other existing and theoretical nuclear generators.

So in other words, we’re all still working on it. And while I may never have an arc reactor installed in my chest (boo..) maybe my children will!

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