Science Behind the Fiction: Are there any metals like Black Panther's Vibranium?

Contributed by
Feb 13, 2018

Tell me something… what do you know about Wakanda?

Marvel's Black Panther hits theaters on Friday, but the character's history and the legacy of his home nation is decades in the making. The character was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the duo responsible for most of the beloved Marvel characters flooding the box office, and first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966.

T'Challa, king of Wakanda and man behind the mask, holds the crown as the first character of African descent to hit mainstream comics. So it's only suitable that he's also the first character of color to get a solo movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (better late than never).

While the character has existed for more than fifty years, he's about to be introduced properly to the world at large and with increased exposure comes increased scrutiny. So, what is the secret to the Panther's success? In a word: Vibranium.

Within the mythos of the Marvel Universe, Wakanda is home to the largest deposit of Vibranium on Earth. It has allowed for the incubation and development of a massively advanced civilization, hidden from the rest of the world.

Vibranium is described as a naturally occurring metal found in meteors and believed to originate from an alien source. Its properties are substantial, having the ability to absorb and diffuse vibrations, making it near indestructible. It's what makes Captain America's shield such a versatile weapon and defense.

While little is yet known about the Vibranium present in Black Panther's apparel, based on the comic books, glimpses we've seen in the trailer, and his brief time in Captain America: Civil War we can infer that the Panther's suit, claws, and boots all benefit from the substance. We've seen him take bullets without a second glance, briefly run up walls, and rip a tire off a moving car.

 

The substance absorbs vibrations, is near impenetrable, incredibly dense, and unbelievably sharp. Considering that the real world has an intimate relationship with fiction, art often imitating life and vice-versa, one has to wonder what real-world materials can stand up to this fictional metal.

While there's nothing yet discovered or created that matches all of the incredible properties of Vibranium, there are several materials similar to the substance in at least one way.

Basotect

In 1979, motivated by an oil crisis to find better insulators to cut energy usage, researchers for BASF in Ludwigshafen, Germany crafted a new material dubbed Basotect. Mixing melamine and formaldehyde with a gas that created bubbles measuring 50–150 micrometers each, resulted in a porous polymer. While Basotect is a good thermal insulator, as intended, it has an additional unexpected property.

Researchers found that when exposed to sound, the waves found their way into the bubbles where they were trapped, unable to rebound back into the surrounding space. The vibrations set the polymer strands to wiggling, converting the sound to heat.

Vibranium, as described in Marvel source material, succeeds by absorbing incoming vibrations and trapping them within its own chemical bonds where they are slowly released over time. It is possible for Vibranium to become overloaded with vibrational energy, at which point the metal breaks down. Basotect could feasibly suffer a similar fate if enough sound were loaded into it that it heated to the point of corruption. But considering that it maintains its structure up to temperatures of 240 degrees Celsius (464 Fahrenheit) that isn't likely.

Basotect has been used in public spaces where noise pollution is a concern, as well as inside cars, trains, and planes to minimize engine sounds. It's even been part of an exhibit entitled PSAD Synthetic Desert III” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, creating a semi-anechoic chamber (meaning no echoes) that reduced ambient noise to a range of 10–15 decibels, quiet enough to hear your own heart pumping blood through your body. It won't stop a blow from Thor's enchanted hammer but it will stifle your cries.

Spider Silk

The only biological contender on this list, spider silk is a veritable miracle material. While it may seem counter-intuitive, ounce for ounce, the fibers our unwanted house guests leave dangling from our ceilings are stronger than steel. While humanity's greatest engineering feats were developed in laboratories, spider silk was forged through 380 million years of evolution.

Specialized to halt and capture fast moving insects, a spider's silk must have incredible tensile strength so that it can arrest would-be meals without breaking. The strength of spider silk is variable depending on the species involved and what type of silk is being produced.

Spiders produce silk for a variety of functions. Egg sacs, burrows, and webs are all made of different kinds of silk, each with their own unique properties. Spider silk has been a point of interest in biology and materials science for some time. We've long understood that these tiny fibers have potential applications but getting a hold of sufficient silk for manufacturing is a particular challenge, largely as spiders are cannibalistic and can't be kept together in large numbers.

Of particular interest is major-ampullate silk, better known as dragline silk. These are the strands that form the outer rim of webs and are the strongest variety, equivalent in strength to Kevlar. Scaled up, spider silk has incredible stopping power. One team of researchers have even confirmed that, if increased in size to a human scale, dragline silk would have no trouble arresting the momentum of a moving train, as depicted in Spider-Man 2 (2004).

In 2009 a new species of spider was first described. The Darwin's Bark Spider, named for Charles Darwin, weaves webs capable of spanning across rivers and other large bodies of water. They do so by sending out a continuous strand, carried by the wind, until it creates a bridge, then building their web over the center to capture unsuspecting victims moving over the water.

Scientists suspected the silk of the Darwin's Bark Spider must be of particular strength due to the sheer size of the webs and they weren't disappointed. When tested, the strength of the silk was determined to be roughly twice the strength of other known silks. Though, they were quick to clarify that roughly 99 percent of species have not yet been thoroughly researched. With further research, it's highly likely there are other surprises in store. The future of industries from body armor to airplane construction may involve spider silk composites, if only we could discover a way to manufacture it in mass quantities.

Graphene

When it comes to really strong materials, carbon structures can't be beaten. Diamonds, densely packed carbon crystals, are super hard. So hard, in fact, they're used in drill bits and saws to cut up just about anything else. Even the name, diamond, comes from the Greek word adamas (notice the similarity to another fictional metal of Marvel fame), meaning invincible. Their strength comes from their crystalline structure, each carbon atom joined to four others. But they're brittle and inflexible. Hit one with a hammer and it will break. They wouldn't work well as body armor, so I wouldn't trust one to save T'Challa from a bullet, but they might make a reasonable replacement for his rending claw tips.

Carbon comes in a number of other natural structures, namely buckminsterfullerene (commonly known as Bucky Balls) and carbon nanotubes. These structures have incredible strength owing to the covalent single, double, and sometimes triple atomic bonds. Carbon nanotubes are so strong, in fact, that they've long been heralded as the potential solution to building the cable needed for a geosynchronous space elevator. The only trouble is, as with spider silk, we struggle to manufacture them in sufficient quantities. Additionally, even a single atom out of place drastically reduces the strength of the material. I'm not so sure I'm willing to risk a trip on a space train to a cable that needs to be flawless to the atomic level.

The undisputed champion of strong materials, however, is graphene. Chemically identical to graphite, the stuff that makes pencils work; graphene is a two-dimensional layer of carbon atoms just one atom thick, laid out in a flat sheet. Manufacturing them is ridiculously easy, you can do so at home with a pencil and a piece of scotch tape.

 

A graphene sheet, when properly separated, is so strong that it's been suggested the strength needed to puncture a sheet the thickness of plastic rap is equivalent to an elephant balanced on a pencil. Though, what you'd probably need is a diamond shaped like a pencil. The stresses involved would surely snap an ordinary pencil before the graphene gave a micrometer. Pretty impressive for a material so thin you couldn't see it properly without a microscope.

If only we could combine the raw, unmoving resistance of graphene with the flexibility of spider silk we might have something close to the bullet-stopping body suit the Black Panther wears. If we could just get some mad scientist to…

Nicola Pugno, professor of solid and structural mechanics at the University of Trento in Italy, along with his team, added Graphene and Carbon Nanotubes to the drinking water of laboratory spiders. After which, the spiders spun silk found to be five times stronger than normal. Clearly, no one told Professor Pugno (a name alliterative enough to be a proper Marvel villain) that spiders are impressive enough without giving them superpowers.

We're still a ways away from crafting our own personal Black Panther suits, none of these materials (Basotect excluded) are anywhere near camera ready. But the future of materials science is bright and full of potential. We might all be wearing metal spider suits before too long.

 

Black Panther, the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hits theaters on February 16.