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Move Over Element 117, Iron Man’s Fusing Nuclei

I recently went to see “Iron Man 2” despite all the reviews telling me that it’s just so-so. Well, I, too, thought it wasn’t as good as the first movie in the franchise, but I’m glad I went. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten to see Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) make a new chemical element on the big screen.

Spoiler alert: For those who haven’t seen the film and actually care, I’m going to tell you something about the plot line.

Kids, don't try this at home. And if you do, use some radiation shielding. Credit: Marvel

Since we last saw him, Iron Man’s been busy building more supersuits, erecting theme parks to himself, and improving the arc reactor in his chest. The reactor keeps him alive and simultaneously powers his exoskeletal suit (technology Newscripts has written about before). Unfortunately, it also uses palladium, which is somehow slowly getting into Stark’s bloodstream and poisoning him at the same time.

If I had a nickel for every time that’s happened to me …

So what’s a supergenius to do? Well, Stark says he’s tried all the other elements in the periodic table to no avail. Instead, he thinks outside the, er, table and comes up with the idea to create an entirely new element.

In what seems like an afternoon, Stark builds a particle accelerator in his house (although the audience isn’t exactly told that this is what he’s doing). He bombards a target in the accelerator with a high-powered ion beam and then directs the new elemental beam into an upgraded arc reactor for storage. Following this up with a pompous “That was easy,” Stark pops that sucker into his chest and goes on to save the day.

To find out how long it might take mere mortals to create a new chemical element, I contacted Dawn A. Shaughnessy, a nuclear chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who was also part of the superteam that recently generated element 117. “Based on our recent experiments,” she says, “it took us six months to see six atoms of element 117.”

Although the concept of creating a new element is simple—smashing an intense beam of ions into a target where the atomic numbers of each add up to the element you want—the hard part is in the details, Shaughnessy says. The beam of ions requires an accelerator, such as a cyclotron; the targets are typically rare isotopes of radioactive materials that need to be handled with great care; and enormous amounts of collected computer data must be sorted to confirm generation of the new element. “If it was easy, it would be done all the time, rather than every few years at best,” she says.

In addition, most of the new elements being generated these days live less than a second because they decay via alpha emission. Plus—and this is a silly little detail—they’re radioactive. Unless Iron Man could manipulate the new elemental beam “in a fraction of a second,” Shaughnessy says, “there is no chance he could store it.” And even if he could, she adds, “I would certainly not want to store the products from a cyclotron irradiation in my suit.”

Alright, alright. I’m not here to poo-poo the movie and tell you about how Tony Stark couldn’t possibly have made his own element. It’s a film based on a comic book (a subject I’ve clearly been into lately), and part of the fun is suspending disbelief. What I would’ve liked was a bit more description for the audience about what Iron Man was building and why—it would’ve been nice to get people interested in the science.

I would’ve also liked to have been told exactly what element he made. Some Internet sources say that Stark generated something called vibranium, an element that is part of the Marvel Universe lexicon. According to Marvel’s website, vibranium is a rare metal that absorbs any type of vibration, from sound waves to shock waves from an explosion. Pretty nifty.

As for Iron Man building a particle accelerator in his mansion, Shaughnessy admits that it is possible, but you’d need a very large house and millions of dollars, she says. That checks out for Tony Stark, of course. Particle accelerators contain large magnets for accelerating and steering the ion beams, a huge power supply, high-vacuum equipment, and a water-cooling system—not to mention radiation shielding. To operate all of that, you’d need a few million dollars per year, Shaughnessy says, adding, “the electric bill would be out of sight!”

1 Comment

  • Dec 20th 201122:12
    by sarah j.

    thanks for putting so much work into this, I enjoyed the science side of things and while, alas, I know Tony Starks new element is impossible, I have always been a sucker for superhero movies anyway.

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