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Ironman’s Heart is Closer to Reality than you Think

Tony Stark and his arc reactor (c) Paramount Pictures
Tony Stark and his arc reactor (c) Paramount Pictures

The semi-official name of the blue thing on Tony Stark’s chest is the Repulsor Tech node.  And it’s more of science fact than fiction – nuclear batteries have been around for decades!  Nope, these babies aren’t nuclear reactors like those in Fukushima and Chernobyl, rather they are real batteries that rely on radioactive decay of atomic isotopes instead of chemical reactions.

So are you still with me?  If not, let it suffice to say that nuclear batteries have been used to power deep space probes like Voyager and Galileo, as well as your grandfather’s pacemaker.  The type of nuclear battery used in these applications is called the radioisotope thermoelectric generator or RTG. It turns out that those who got their pacemakers back in the 70’s had a lot in common with Tony Stark.  Aside from them being quite old, they also owe their superhuman strength on nuclear batteries that they wear on their heart.

The RTG powered pacemakers of old used a radioactive metal, the plutonium-238 isotope in particular, to make electricity to keep ticking.  The nice thing is that it would take a lifetime, or maybe two, to run out.  Problem is, like what we saw in Ironman, is that the same thing that gives the wearer life also turns out to be highly toxic.  Plutonium is one of the most toxic elements known to mankind and a microgram of the stuff could kill you instantly.  With proper shielding and packaging, it is so safe that even pregnant women could wear them.  This is why 4 decade old nuclear pacemakers are still ticking until today, even if their recipients may no longer be.

But then, there is more than one way to skin a cat, err, to make electricity from radioactive isotopes.  Instead of relying on heat like the RTGs of old, betavoltaic devices make electricity directly from the radioactive decay.  It’s pretty much like a solar cell with its own sun.  Instead of using toxic plutonium, these kinds of batteries use hydrogen, nickel or strontium.  They all emit beta rays as they decay, and none of the deadly gamma rays that would kill you. Nope, they will not turn you into The Hulk, no matter what you do.

Of the three, it is the hydrogen based batteries that are already available.  These batteries use the isotope tritium, and are supplied by at least one battery manufacturer to the military and industry to provide a small amount of electricity for a very long period of time.  Unfortunately, these are only able to provide nano watts as of the moment.

Just the same, like in Ironman, this kind of technology didn’t escape the military’s eye.  Troops have long been held down by the fact that they had to lug around a lot of power, in addition to firepower.  In fact, it’s not unusual for a trooper to carry 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) of batteries into the battlefield to power up radios and sensors.  This is a lot of dead weight that gets our soldiers killed, especially in the summer heat of Iraq and Afghanistan.  The problem is so acute that the Defense Science Board said that “nuclear batteries” are essential for the U.S. military to operate in the 21st century.

Along these lines, the Army Research Laboratory developed a nuclear battery that matches their existing BA-5590 battery pack in size, using the same connector, but this time lasting 13 years.  Now that’s longer than what it takes to look for WMD, if they actually exist in Iraq.

The problem crops up when it’s time to throw them away.  Like anyone who’s not hiding under a rock knows, there comes a time when the battery eventually ends up dead and can no longer be brought back to life.  Now, if the battery uses a radioactive material to generate power, that can be a huge problem.  But while they are non-fissile and are useless as bomb material, they are still radioactive and are so for a very long time.

Just the same, the Establishment seems all but hell bent on using these babies.  In the meantime, we can only hope that real heroes emerge to stop the madness, and they need not be Ironmen.

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