Iron Man is perhaps the most prolific superhero engineer around. Literally, at the heart of Tony Stark is one of the most awe-inspiring feats of engineering in the entire comic book and movie series: a reactor core. While it may not exist in reality (yet), let’s take a look at some of the engineering needed to make this happen.
What is the Iron Man reactor?
The Iron Man reactor is essentially a fusion reactor that harnesses energy by removing electrons from hydrogen atoms. This removal of electrons creates an ion plasma, which is the ultimate source of energy. What makes the miniature reactor both incredible and breathtaking is twofold.
A: the source of energy is, in every practical sense, endless. Sustained fusion reactions of hydrogen atoms on a small scale are enough to power a block of houses for their lasting lifespan. Of them: the technology is actually a possibility, and MIT believes that a true Iron Man reactor could be created by 2025.
How would the reactor work?
Let’s take a look at the details of how the reactor core works. The fusion reactor would be shaped like a donut, otherwise known as a tokamak. Two types of hydrogen atoms called deuterium and tritium would be retained inside the core of the donut reactor. Small pulses of energy are used to trigger the fusion reaction by removing electrons from their host atoms. This removal of electrons creates an ionic plasma from which energy can be recovered. As a fun note, you can create a plasma in your microwave with a grape. I’m serious, just google.
The hydrogen atoms inside the tokamak reactor would be heated to temperatures above 150 million degrees Celsius. This plasma is of course very reactive to the magnetic influence, which will be used to keep it away from direct contact with the walls of the reactor. Magnetic fields are generated by the coils you see all around Tony Stark’s reactor, essentially extreme electromagnets. Keeping the plasma away from the walls of the reactor is essential in order to be able to maintain any level of thermal insulation from the hot plasma and the otherwise cold outside world.
Can it be built?
In short, yes. MIT teams are working on creating a fusion reactor that would be around 21 feet in diameter. Far from the size of Iron Man’s reactor, but still, a relatively small size compared to other power generation systems in use today.
Here’s the thing, fusion reactors have been around for a while. Scientists were able to maintain fusion reactions, but the net electricity produced has always been negative.
In other words, no fusion reactor has ever produced more energy than it consumes. This is due to the immense energy required by the superconducting coils used to create the immense stabilizing magnetic fields. Theoretically, a net positive fusion reactor is achievable, and this is the ultimate goal and vision of research teams around the world. If scientists are able to break through and create a functioning fusion reactor core, it will mark the start of one of the cleanest energy sources in human history.