Bam! Science Inspired by Superheroes

By Eric Roston - 2013-12-17T14:48:54Z

Photograph by Paramount/Everett Collection

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Iron Man's "Arc Reactor"

Tony Stark is one of Marvel’s most vivid creations, made ever more so by Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (2008) and two sequels (2010 and 2013).

Embedded in his sternum is a powerful magnet that prevents shrapnel, stuck there from a near-fatal wound, from entering his heart and killing him. It’s powered by an “arc reactor,” which also provides energy for his Iron Man armor.

The ability to conceal a nuclear power plant in your shirt isn’t an imminent possibility, but reactors are shrinking. The U.S. supports modular nuclear reactors, which are cheaper and easier to site than conventional models. The military is looking into ultra-lightweight reactors for soldiers in the field.

Taylor Wilson, a 2013 high school graduate from Reno, Nevada, has gained celebrity for his precocious work in nuclear energy. He said by email: “Unfortunately there's no way to scale down these fission reactors to quite fit inside a suit, especially considering the necessary radiation shielding.”

Left, Iron Man 2, 2010.