How Does Iron Man's Arc Reactor Work?

Is it possible to build a practically infinite fusion power source?
Trevor English

Iron Man is perhaps the most prolific superhero engineer there is. Literally, at the core of Tony Stark sits one of the most impressive engineering feats of the entire comic book and movie series: a reactor core. While it may not exist in reality (yet), let’s look at some of the engineering needed to make it happen.

What is Iron Man's reactor?

Iron Man’s reactor is essentially a fusion reactor that harnesses energy by removing electrons from Hydrogen atoms. This removal of electrons creates an ion plasma, which is the ultimate source of energy. What makes the miniature reactor both so incredible as well as breathtaking is twofold.

One: the energy source is, in all practical senses, endless. Sustained fusion reactions of Hydrogen atoms on a small scale is enough to power a block of homes for their sustainable lifetime. Two: the technology is actually a possibility, and MIT believes that a real Iron Man reactor could be created by the year 2025.

How would the reactor work?

Let’s dig into the specifics of how the reactor core would work. The fusion reactor would be donut-shaped, otherwise known as a tokamak. Two kinds of hydrogen atoms called deuterium and tritium would be held inside of the donut reactor core. Small pulses of energy are used to kick-start the fusion reaction by removing electrons from their host atoms. This removal of electrons creates an ion plasma that energy can be harvested from. As a fun side note, you can create a plasma in your microwave with a grape. I’m serious, just Google it.

The hydrogen atoms inside of the tokamak reactor would be heated to temperatures over 150 million degrees celsius. This plasma is, of course, very reactive to magnetic influence, which will be used to keep it away from direct contact with the reactor walls. Magnetic fields are generated by the coils you see all around Tony Stark’s reactor, basically just extreme electromagnets. Keeping the plasma away from the walls of the reactor is key in being able to sustain any level of thermal insulation from the hot plasma and the otherwise cool outside world.

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Can it be built?

In short, yes. Teams at MIT are working to create a fusion reactor that would be about 21 feet in diameter. Nowhere near the size of Iron Man’s reactor, but still, a relatively small size compared to other power generation systems currently in use.

Here’s the thing, Fusion reactors have been around for a while. Scientists have been able to sustain fusion reactions, but the net electricity produced has always been negative.

In other words, no fusion reactor has ever produced more energy than it consumes. This is due to the immense energy needed for the superconducting coils used to create the immense stabilizing magnetic fields. Theoretically, a net positive fusion reactor is achievable, and this is the ultimate goal and vision of research teams across the world. If scientists are able to break through and create a working fusion reactor core, it would spell the beginning of one of the cleanest energy sources in human history.

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