Could someone become a superhero in real life? – Emma, aged six, Tonbridge, UK
Do you know the difference between these two groups of superheroes?
Dr Strange, Scarlet Witch, Superman.
Black Panther, Black Widow, Iron Man.
The answer is that the superheroes in the first group all have personal superpowers that means they can do things that no ordinary human can: Dr Strange can teleport from one place to another, for example, and Scarlet Witch can move things with the power of her mind.
On the other hand, the people in the second group are all ordinary humans who use their skills to achieve what most of us would find impossible. In many cases, they also use advanced or secret technologies.
These technologies are made up, and in the main they were invented by comic writers like Stan Lee over 50 years ago. Now we are in the 21st century, the technologies that exist today are catching up with the inventions from the comics of the 1960s – so maybe someone could become a superhero like Black Panther or Iron Man in real life in the future.
Let’s start with Iron Man. He is able to fly using a personal jet pack. The real-life problem is being able to carry enough fuel to go far enough for it to be worthwhile.
In October 2019, a new speed record for flying with a jet pack was set by Richard Browning in the UK. Browning was wearing a suit powered by six gas turbine engines. Like Iron Man, he used his hands to provide the steering, with two small motors on each hand, and then two larger turbines on the back to get him off the ground and keep him in the air.
He reached a speed of 85mph (135km/h), flying over the sea in Brighton, UK, (guaranteeing a soft landing if things went wrong). Browning also tested out using the jet pack to rescue people stranded on a mountain. In a practice rescue scenario in the Lake District, Browning was able to reach a casualty in 90 seconds. A normal rescue team would expect to take 25 minutes. Tony Stark would approve.
Superheroes often rely on fictional materials. Black Panther’s suit is made with the element “vibranium”, which absorbs energy and can release it later when desired. In reality, all the elements – the atoms that make up all the materials in the world around us – have been discovered: there aren’t any “super-elements” like vibranium waiting to be found. Scientists have been making new “heavy” elements in particle accelerators by smashing atoms together, but they are unstable and last seconds or less before splitting apart.
But that hasn’t stopped engineers from making innovations in materials using the elements that we already have. Paralympians use “blade” prosthetic legs to ski, run and jump. These blades are made using the element carbon, which is found throughout nature and is amazingly versatile. In different forms it makes diamonds – the hardest substance on Earth – and graphite, which can be used in oils as a lubricant.
In the blades, the carbon is in the form of fibres, woven like cloth and then sealed with a resin that acts as a glue to bind them together. The blades store energy and then return the energy to the athlete. This allows the athletes to run at high speeds, to the extent that Paralympic runners are now faster than the Olympians of the last century.
Other superheroes use technologies to help them manage their powers. In the Incredibles, Baby Jack-Jack can light up on fire, so he needs a suit made of material that won’t burn. We have developed materials like this in real life.
At the Bahrain Grand Prix in November 2020, driver Romain Grosjean crashed into a barrier at 140 mph. His car broke into two pieces and caught fire so fiercely that it appeared to have exploded. Grosjean not only survived the crash but quite literally walked away.
This was because of the energy absorbing properties of the crash protection systems in his car, and because of his racing suit. The suit is made of a fireproof fibre called Nomex. It is engineered so when it is exposed to flames it does not melt, combust, or conduct heat through to the wearer.
So year-on-year, the technologies that set apart the superheroes of the 1960s are becoming the tools of real heroes today. Teleportation, telekinesis, and telepathy remain in the realms of fantasy for now, but there are researchers working on linking our brains directly with computers, so who knows what the future holds?