OpinionScienceTechnology

Super Heroes Part 2: Strong ‘N Tough

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As I stated in Part 1, we’re going to figure out how to make some real-world super heroes. To begin looking at creating powers, let’s start with two things that are almost obligatory in the comic book world. Let’s look at how to make heroes super strong, and how to make them super tough. The hard part is to try and do it with real science.

Why do I get myself into these things?

SUPER STRENGTH

Step one is to create a hero that can lift great weight, chuck heavy weight, and punch real hard. I’m sure there are plenty of other parlor room tricks that can be done, but we’ll focus on just those few.

CYBERNETIC

Let’s look first at how to provide superhuman strength mechanically. Cyborgs are always fun to play with, and they tend to be a lot closer to “real-world” science since there are actually projects making this happen. So what can we utilize for this undertaking?

It almost seems obligatory at this point to mention the well-known exoskeletons. The first is the Japanese Cyberdyne HAL (Hybrid Assisted Limb) which provides the capability for an eight-to-one lifting ratio. And then there’s also the Raytheon XOS2 which has been able to provide up to a twenty-to-one lifting ratio. The HAL, designed for use for medical use such as in nursing homes, isn’t designed to allow fast movement and definitely is not for combat. The XOS2 is designed for combat, but it still has to be tethered for power. Even college students have made similar devices! Although not quite ready for battle use, they prove the practical capabilities of motors and servos to provide superhuman strength Iron Man style.

The HAL, or as the International Olympic Committee calls it, "cheating".
The HAL, or as the International Olympic Committee calls it, “cheating”.

The next option would be artificial muscles. The key would be to create muscle-like structures and/or fibers which can contract under electrical current. When one thinks about materials which can contract and return to its normal shape, it’s normal to think about nitinol (a nickel/tin alloy) commonly known as “memory metal”. However, nitinol is a material that contracts and returns under changes in heat, not electrical current. That’s not exactly the key to superhuman strength that we’re looking for. Not only is it too difficult to operate, it would also be difficult to control given changes in ambient temperatures. It’s one thing to get a cold chill when the temperature suddenly drops. It’s another thing to punch people at random somewhat resembling cerebral palsy every time someone adjusts the thermostat.

On the other hand, there are substances which can contract under electrical current. The most notable of these is the carbon nanotube. Enough of these nanotube fibers bundled together as muscles and suddenly we have a viable candidate for a super-powerful hero! Nanotube technology is coming along very quickly, but still has a long way to go.

But what other options are there?

One possibility comes from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Engineering. They have developed a type of artificial muscle which can stretch up to five times its normal length. That can allow a robot to lift up to 80 times its own weight! Imagine if we can adapt this into a super suit or into an artificial arm!

And if that wasn’t enough, the US Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab has devised a material which promises to provide strength up to 1000 times that of a human! Granted, the phase shift in the material is heat-based rather than electrical, contracting at 67° Fahrenheit. But as an initial proof of concept, it’s quite remarkable!

BIOLOGICAL

The ability for humans to lift massive weight is not unheard of. When one’s life is in danger or when a loved one’s life is in danger, an adrenaline surge has been known to allow a person to perform seemingly superhuman feats of strength. However, the body, particularly in the muscles, tends to pay a heavy price for that short burst of strength.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot biologically discovered to properly say that a true superhuman strongman can be created through medical tweaking. There are some potential reference points though. First of all, there’s Dennis Rogers. His muscle fibers twitch rapidly enough to make him stronger, pound for pound, than virtually anyone else on Earth. To mimic this ability would be to create muscle that is all twitchy. Possible, but let’s look at other options.

There’s always the possibility of genetic grafting. Using insectoid muscles, such as the jumping muscles of a flea, could potentially increase a person’s strength by immense amounts. Grafting of animal organs into the human body is not common, but has been done many times. Theoretically, grafting genes could cause the necessary alterations in a super hero. Let’s just hope it’s limited to the muscles and doesn’t result in that insectoid complexion.

And if we can learn to better utilize the genetic code, perhaps we can even cause muscle fibers to contract in ways similar to the bionic muscles that would rival even Superman! Now wouldn’t that be fun?

SUPER TOUGH

Now we run into a bit of a dilemma. There are two problems that arise at this point. First of all, we have a hero who can dish it out but can’t take it. Secondly, it makes very little sense to have a hero that can lift a tank but doesn’t have the bone structure to support said tank. Ouch. Something absolutely must be done to remedy this! Now it’s time to toughen our hero up.

CYBERNETIC

Let’s start with the basic bullet-proof vest. Typically made with Kevlar or a Kevlar blend, the vest acts in a way that is similar to a non-Newtonian fluid. Kinetic energy causes it to stiffen at the point of impact. While this might work well for low-level Punisher types, it doesn’t in itself make a super hero. There are some severe limitations. First of all, the strength of attack it can stop is extremely limited. Larger and more powerful rounds of ammo will easily overcome a Kevlar vest. It only works properly against small arms. Secondly, its effectiveness depends on the force of energy. Small calibers (.22 LR for example), arrows, or crossbow bolts don’t provide sufficient energy for the material to stiffen up enough for protection.

Next, let’s consider the modern wonder known as spider silk. It’s flexible, yet lighter and stronger than steel. And now scientists have bred goats with the genetics to produce spider silk rather than milk. The technology holds promise. Not only that, but so far there’s no word of venomous goats crawling around on the ceiling.

And then there’s the simple concept of metal plating, not unlike a knight from the middle ages. But we won’t be using just any metal. Instead, we’ll use Modumetal! Modumetal is a metal that undergoes a three-stage nano-lamination process. The general idea is to prevent corrosion. But the result is a super strong metal which one publication regarded as a real-world Adamantium! This could also be good material for reinforcing or replacing bones.

Of course, the hero would need to be able to see out of the armor. So an ALON visor would be in order. (ALON is short for Aluminum OxyNitride, better known as Transparent Aluminum.)

Finally, let’s look at a somewhat-theoretical idea. What if each section of the armor was a single, complete molecule? If there is no place for molecules to separate from each other, then there is no breaking point. The concept of a giant molecule has been proven with both carbon nanotubes and graphene. But so far, there has been no such application as unbreakable armor.

Gold-titanium alloy not needed.
Gold-titanium alloy not needed.

BIOLOGICAL

For more organic solutions, let’s start with the idea of a bone plating. There are a wide variety of arthropods in the animal kingdom, with their armored exoskeletons. There are also animals with bones extruding from the body. If we can play around with the composition of the minerals used in the extruding parts (instead of just calcium) and cover the body like armored plating, we could theoretically come up with something not too unlike The Thing (Ben Grimm) of the Fantastic four.

If we want something less conspicuous, another option is currently in development. It combines skin with spider silk. By having an organic, spider silk-like outer layer that can heal like skin (since, technically, it still is), our hero becomes tougher and more impervious to impact force trauma than anyone else walking the face of the Earth. Now if we can just get it to stiffen at the point of impact like a Kevlar vest, we will have truly achieved massive toughness!

CONCLUSION

So in short, the possibility of a super-strong, super-tough hero is a very real possibility. Although we’re closer to a bionic-type hero, a genetically-modified one isn’t that much farther off. So ethics be darned, we could eventually have ourselves a genuine super hero!

<— Part 1

Part 3: Having A Blast With Energy —>

 

Daniel C. Handley

Dan Handley was raised a Trekkie, fell in love with "Star Wars" at an early age, and became obsessed with comic book superheroes. He spent his youth dreaming of how to get real superpowers, starships, and so on.

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