superhero science

Admit it: At least one point in your life, you dreamed of being a superhero. Perhaps you wore a DIY cape to emulate Superman, practiced the signature leaping and web-shooting gestures of Spider-Man, or even just stood in front of a mirror to do Iron Man’s open-palm repulsor pose.

Most of the superpowers exhibited by these characters are physically impossible by normal human standards. A few examples are the Hulk and Wonder Woman’s enhanced strength, or Flash and Quicksilver’s super-speed. However, some of the most popular comic book protagonists are still ordinary humans (or at least as close to ordinary as possible), dependent on gadgets to either enhance their abilities or compensate for the absence of them. In other words, these superhero gadgets may actually become accessible to us in the future, thanks to science.

As a matter of fact, some of them actually exist today.

Here are four artifacts from the realm of comics that science is currently trying to turn – or has already turned – into reality.

Superhero tool #1: Wolverine’s signature claws

Don’t we all love it when Logan gets worked up into a berserker rage and unleashes hell upon a group of armed opponents? Aside from his well-known regeneration powers, Wolverine’s signature ability revolves around the indestructible claws that spring out of his hands. The Canadian X-Man has full control of these claws, retracting and unsheathing them at will, either one at a time or all at once.

Quite a few inventors have tried to create their own versions of the hairy mutant’s trademark weapons. One of them is Colin Furze, whose “Wolverine claws” are quite sharp — enough to cut a watermelon — and fully retractable. 

Each blade is made from 2mm-thick stainless steel (sorry, no Adamantium available), attached to metal mounts worn around the user’s forearms. The blade ends are attached to valves that are wired to an air tank, worn by the user like a backpack. The claws pop out by means of a switch; to retract them, Furze utilizes a spring-loaded mechanism connected to another firing switch. The inventor endured a tedious trial-and-error process in order to find a way to make the claws pop out. He initially utilized motorized rigs before deciding to go with a bulky (yet effective) air propulsion system.

Meanwhile, Brian Kaminski from Advancer Technologies developed a set of claws that are released by flexing one’s arms — closer to how the claws function in the comic books. His claws, called the MyoWare Bionic Claws, operate using his newly developed muscle sensors.

The gauntlet-like design is sleeker than Furze’s, and features a 3D-printed set of four-inch claws. The claws are attached to a ‘servo horn’, which propels and retracts in accordance to the muscle sensor.

Superhero tool #2: Spider-Man’s webbing

We all know who Spider-Man is. In fact, over the last two decades, we’ve seen six solo Spider-Man movies starring three different actors. Across the character’s various suits and portrayals, however, one thing remains constant: Spidey’s webs. In the comics, his artificial web formula posts a tensile strength of 120 lb per square millimeter, and can be modified to stop even the Hulk.

In real life, natural spider silk is known to be five times stronger than steel and thrice as resilient as Kevlar. Aside from that, spider silk can also function as an electrical conductor, and even has antimicrobial properties. With all of these qualities in mind, it does make sense to try producing more spider silk for anthropogenic purposes.

Unfortunately, producing enough for human use is easier said than done. It takes 400 spiders to produce a yard of cloth, and 1500 strands of silk to create a single thread!

Still, small companies such as AMSilk have already begun producing commercialized “spider silk” for hair care and cosmetics. In addition, AMSilk has already guaranteed that they can significantly scale up their spider silk production, and has even started the synthesis of recombinant spider silk that’s as strong and resilient as the natural version.

Superhero tool #3: Batman’s grappling hook

Batman’s popularity is partly due to the fact that he does not have any superpowers. Sure, he’s a billionaire martial artist who can develop tons of bat-themed gadgets, but he’s still human.

While we’re all familiar with his Batsuit, Batarangs, and Batmobile, the single most practical device in his arsenal, however, is perhaps his grappling gun. This tool saw heavy use in the numerous Batman films over the decades. Michael Keaton’s version used it for mobility, and Christian Bale’s Batman stopped the Joker from falling to his death with it. Meanwhile, Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight utilized it for both offensive and defensive purposes.

In 2012, Utah’s Brigham Young University developed a wall-scaling gadget similar in function to Batman’s grappling gun.  The device uses a compressed air cannon to propel a grappling hook to the top of the climbing structure, leaving behind a rope that can be attached to a motorized winch. The winch is then attached to the climber’s harness, after which the climber can push a button and move up the building at a speed of approximately 9 meters per minute. The team also created a variant that uses epoxy instead of a grappling hook. With the aid of LED lights, the head patch could attach itself firmly to a wall in just five minutes. This gadget was their winning entry in a competition sponsored by the US Air Force Research Laboratory.

Superhero tool #4: Iron Man’s suit

Throughout the 10-year history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one hero has gone through numerous changes, having been there since the very beginning: Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. Long before he was suiting up using nanobots in Avengers: Infinity War, he cobbled together his makeshift Mark I armor in a cave, with a bunch of scraps. From the start, though, Stark’s armors have had the ability to fly, albeit in different capacities.

With access to, well, more than just a cave and a bunch of scraps, inventor and ex-Royal Marine reservist Richard Browning built a flight suit, which he dubbed “Deadalus.”

A total of six miniature kerosene-powered jet engines are located on the arms and the lower back of the user. Browning controls the device with two switches: one for the arm jets, and another for the back engines. He wears an exosuit for additional flight stability and protection from engine-generated heat.

Collectively, the engines create approximately 130 kilograms of thrust. This gives Browning the ability to remain above the ground for 12 minutes. His videos show that he can fly at a speed of approximately eight miles per hour, at an altitude of up to 1.8 meters. Browning describes piloting the suit as “riding a bike in three dimensions.” It must be like riding a very fast bike, then, as Browning set the Guinness World Record for “recording the fastest speed in a body-controlled jet engine-powered suit.” –MF

Cover photo: Film still from “Spider-Man 2” (2004).


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Author: Rafael Ambag

A science kid at heart, Paeng aims to spark the interest of the common man in science through science journalism and organizing science camps for elementary children. He is an incoming freshman under UP Diliman’s BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology program.