Superhero powers can be real, say engineers

Published:  20 December, 2016

As part of the recently held Tomorrow’s Engineers Week, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) assembled a team of engineers to investigate the superpowers of the world’s favourite superheroes; including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, and how advances in engineering and technology could make them a reality in the future.

In partnership with parenting website Mumsnet, the IET superhero fans of all ages joined a ‘#EngineerASuperhero’ Twitter party on 9 November and had all of their burning superhero questions answered by heroes of the engineering world. The party reached over 300,000 people and created nearly 5 million social media impressions.

The IET has shared the top questions and answers from the #EngineerASuperhero party:

1. Is it possible to create regenerative power like Wolverine? In the future it could be created by bio-printing – a type of 3D printing that prints cells, which could be used to print new organs eventually.

2. Are we any closer to actually making a real Ironman suit? By looking at the advances in reading brain waves and understanding how these control different actions, engineers could create a suit like this. The suit could be controlled by our minds.

3. Could we ever climb buildings like Spider-Man? Scientists have already discovered how to climb walls like geckos. You just need a slightly larger than hand-sized amount of gecko-like material and to work out how to balance the strain of the hanging human in a uniform way.

4. How can you make me invisible, like Invisible Woman? Engineers could use videos to project whatever is around you onto your clothing - in effect making you become invisible. For example, projecting the sky on the underside of an aeroplane.

5. Would humans ever be able to understand all languages like Wonder Woman? This is being developed now and could be done through an earpiece with speech recognition tech (like siri) but with multiple languages.

Wonder Woman

Lucy Ackland, IET member and senior development engineer at Renishaw, explains how Wonder Woman’s indestructible armour could be engineered: “Wonder Woman’s bracelets are indestructible and able to absorb the impact of incoming attacks. We already have bullet proof vests but these only absorb bullets often leaving the wearer injured. To engineer Wonder Woman’s bracelets, carbon nanotubes could be woven to repel the force of attacks rather than absorb it.”

Spider-Man

According to Naomi Mitchison, a senior hardware engineer at Leonardo, exoskeleton technology will allow us to develop superhuman capabilities like Spider-Man. Exoskeleton technology allows people with spinal cord injuries to walk again and advanced materials could make them lighter and more flexible to resist injury, like Spider-Man. The rise of graphene – the world’s thinnest material – may also allow engineers to develop silk web throwing capabilities.

The Batmobile

Even the Batmobile is closer to reality than you may think according to the IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year finalist and Jaguar Land Rover engineer, Emma Wilding: “The process of designing a Batmobile would be very similar to that of any car. After the design phase, various features, including blast and nuclear protection and weapons packaging, would be tested through Computer Aided Engineering (CAE). Finally, the buyer would be able to select the interiors.”

Superman

Solar panels are bringing us closer to developing powers akin to Superman, whose powers are fuelled by Earth's yellow star, according to Naomi Mitchison: “Superman is essentially a giant solar battery. You can already buy a coat fitted with solar panels to charge your phone, and there’s even a new fabric that uses sunshine and movement to generate electric current. As solar panels get lighter and more flexible, this technology could be used to keep us warm and help us move in the future.

The Invisible Woman

In the future, fabricated artificial materials called ‘metamaterials’ could allow engineers to harness the power of Marvel’s The Invisible Woman. According to Will Stewart: “Engineers have recently worked out how in principle to ‘cloak’ objects to make them invisible – by bending the light around them and back onto its original path, they can block the view of the object to the eye.”

Will Stewart, vice president of the IET, commented: “The #EngineerASuperhero initiative is part of our wider Engineer a Better World campaign which aims to inspire children, especially girls, and their parents to think about engineering as a rewarding career choice. We were thrilled to partner with Mumsnet for this project, which allowed our inspiring engineering experts to share their insight directly with parents and children.”

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