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A costume player at Comic Con in California shows off the historic Iron Man suit. Once deemed impossible, scientists believe that a real superhuman suit may be a reality sooner than we think, thanks to advanced technology. "Iron Man 3" opens on Friday.

From fiction to reality: Creating a real Iron Man suit

by Andrea Towers
May 2, 2013

The much-anticipated “Iron Man 3” blasts into theaters Friday, predicted to shatter box office records around the world and bring with it some irresistible questions about what we can achieve with real scientific advancements.

When Marvel comics hit the racks more than 70 years ago, concepts like superhuman suits and mutant strength seemed about as realistic as cell phones with video cameras. But scientists and researchers are closer than ever to answering the million-dollar question – can the film’s signature superhuman suit become a reality?

“I would say in the far future, yes. In the near future, no, even though you see individual components that have been demonstrated,” said Suveen Mathaudhu, adjunct materials science professor at North Carolina State University. Mathaudhu is also the co-curator of an exhibit called “COMIC-Tanium: the Super Materials of the Super Heroes” which opens this summer at the Toonseum in Pittsburgh.

In the films, billionaire Tony Stark creates a powerful exoskeleton powered by an “arc reactor,” that runs at first on palladium and later on a mysterious element that allows him to travel at record speed and fight bad guys with impressive strength.

While exoskeletons have been researched by entrepreneurs and even the Department of Defense for the use of enhancing the power and mobility of soldiers, Mathaudhu said the specifics of the suit make it impossible to predict whether or not we could ever see a true carbon copy.

“A huge issue is the power source - how we can power these devices in a way that that becomes portable as part of the suit,” he said, citing a real world example of the small nuclear power supply used for the Mars Rover. “In the movies, Iron Man uses a fusion reactor and I don’t think we’re at a point where we can get that kind of power supply to something that portable.”

Although the suit’s power source remains a considerable barrier, there are other aspects of that may be closer to reality such as Tony’s helmet, according to 3-D imaging masters at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The helmet is built with sensors and visuals that allow him to see when he’s encased in the suit.

“As an interface, what they created is believable and useable – and a lot of stuff you see in Hollywood is cool but wouldn’t work,” said Jason Leigh, also a researcher at EVL.

“It’s really not all that far away,” said Andrew Johnson, associate professor. “Part of the requirements for the F-36 fighter that’s being built is the idea that the fighter would have full vision through the helmet, so that they could look through the plane and see things. The idea that Tony Stark would have all of that data available to him - especially if he has the link back computers - that’s one of the things that’s closest to being real.”

Though most people look at the technological advancements of the Iron Man suit and think about how they would use it to fight crime, Mathaudhu says that the kind of science that goes into making parts of the suit could also be a potential help to elderly or disabled individuals.

“At the moment, there’s more of an impact in terms of helping people who are crippled with these type of suits rather than using them for military applications,” he said. “And I certainly think that within the 10-15 year time frame, we’re going to see a more developed exoskeleton.”

Still, while the reality of a true superhuman suit may be light years away, don’t count out the fact that it could happen sooner rather than later.

“Flying suits or jetpacks have already been around - a guy’s flown across the English Channel with a jetpack before, and we’re starting to develop lighter armor,” said Mathaudhu. “But putting those together in a package is still a long ways away.”