Published May 07, 2010
| Popular Mechanics
In Iron Man 2, industrialist Tony Stark needs to create a new element -- so he builds a particle accelerator in his workshop. Is that really possible? The answer may surprise you.
The palladium that powers Tony Stark's arc reactor -- and, by extension, his Iron Man exoskeleton suit -- is slowly leaking into his bloodstream and killing him. And the fast-talking industrialist has exhausted the rest of the periodic table looking for an element that is a safer power source than palladium. Stark's only option is to create a new element -- which he does by constructing a particle accelerator in his workshop out of some metal tubes.
When he flips the switch, two beams of light collide, creating a third beam that Stark steers (using a wrench, and with much destruction to the walls of his workshop) into a brand new arc reactor. It all seems very easy, at least for someone like Tony Stark.
"Particle accelerators have been in the zeitgeist for a couple of years now because of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland," says Todd Satogata, a physicist in the Collider-Accelerator Department at Brookhaven National Labs. "There are good things and bad things about the portrayals of particle accelerators in media."
According to Satogata, particle accelerators are built to accelerate and collide neutrons, protons and other the subatomic particles at very high speeds. And while they are turned on they can create new elements -- an event that occurs every 5 or 10 years. But it doesn't happen exactly as Iron Man 2 portrays it.
"You smash the nuclei of particles together, and sometimes enough of them stick together that a new element is created [with] a new nucleus of an element that's heavy enough to be stable," Satogata says.
"But it's not really stable. Most of the new elements that get created like this last billionths of a second before they disintegrate." Because of this instability, it's very difficult to store elements as Stark does in his arc reactor: They need to be moving at nearly the speed of light.
But could someone build a particle accelerator in his home (or tiny lab), like Tony Stark does? The answer might surprise you.
"People have," Satogata says. "As a matter of fact, occasionally you get a really smart teenager building one." (Fun fact: The first particle accelerator, called a cyclotron, was 5 inches in diameter -- small enough to hold.) You'd need a beam tube with a large vacuum, charged particles, magnets to bend the beam, and radio frequency oscillators, or RF cavities, to accelerate the particles.
"For the types of things he's doing, he'd probably need much bigger magnets -- I didn't even see any magnets," Satogata says. "So that's a little bit unrealistic unless he's got really, really strong magnets." There's nothing to accelerate the particles, either, but Satogata says the RF cavities could be offscreen.
For more on building the impossible in your living room, see the full story at Popular Mechanics.