Mild-mannered materials scientist by day, comic book fan by night, UC Riverside's Suveen Mathaudhu spends a lot of time thinking about superheroes. Ideas that seem like pure fantasy today, like Captain America's unbreakable shield, inspire the work on new materials in Mathaudhu's lab – sometimes paving the way for real-world inventions.
Mathaudhu points out that many superheroes are scientists first, often before they gain their superpowers.
"If you look at Bruce Banner, who turned into the Hulk, he's a scientist. Peter Parker, he's a chemist who designed his own webs. Iron Man, he's an engineer who builds and designs his own suits and his own armor and his own devices," said Mathaudhu. "They're scientific superheroes."
Mathaudhu's recent research was inspired by Captain America's shield: is it possible to make a material that is both incredibly strong and super lightweight?
In the comics, Army scientist Myron MacLaine's super-strong metal was formed by a mysterious element and he was never able to duplicate his success. Mathaudhu has picked up where MacLaine left off, using recent advances that allows scientists to look in detail at the microstructure of materials.
"With lightweight metals like magnesium and aluminum, they don't have the strength or the formability that you have in steel," said Mathaudhu.
But when you start working with metal grain sizes that are extremely small – below one hundred nanometers – the physics change.
"The materials get very, very, very strong, and sometimes also have high formability," said Mathaudhu.
Advances in this area have already made a real impact in transportation. Mathaudhu cites examples like the new Ford F-150, now 700 pounds lighter thanks to a new aluminum body, or the Boeing Dreamliner, which replaced the aluminum airplane body with a new, lighter carbon-fiber composite.
"As we're journeying out to space, as we're journeying into the ocean, we need new materials to be able to get there," said Mathaudhu.
If you're a comic book fan, don't be surprised if some of those new materials look strikingly familiar.
Read more: How Captain America Inspired New Fuel-Efficient Cars
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