At the start of Iron Man 2, Tony Stark appears to be at the top of his game. Not only is he regarded as a superstar using the Iron Man suit for “world peace,” he has also just reinstituted the Stark Expo, a place where the greatest minds can come together to work on building a better future for mankind.
But not all is well with Tony. The palladium core in the arc reactor that keeps him alive and powers the Iron Man suit is slowly poisoning him. Unfortunately, no known substance is suitable to replace the palladium. Thankfully, Tony’s father, the late Howard Stark, left a diagram for the atomic structure of a new element hidden within a map of a model city. With the help of his artificially intelligent computer J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony reconstructs the structure of the new element from the blueprints and goes about creating this new element.
How do you synthesize a new element?
Up until around the 1930s, elements were discovered using more “traditional” means. Some elements have been known since ancient times, such as gold, tin, and copper. Others were discovered using chemical reactions. For example, manganese dioxide was reacted with carbon to isolate manganese. Potassium was found using electrolysis, a technique were applying a direct electric current causes a chemical reaction. Blue emission lines from spectroscopy of mineral water from Dürkheim, Germany led to the discovery of cesium. Krypton, neon, and xenon were separated by boiling liquid air.
In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie found that raw pitchblende (uranium-rich mineral and ore) was more radioactive than the uranium that was separated from it. They determined that this extra radioactivity came from a new element, polonium, which they were able to chemically separate from the pitchblende. This kick-started the idea to look for elements created by the decay of other elements.
In 1937, Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segrè examined a molybdenum foil that was bombarded by neutrons and deuterons in a cyclotron (a type of particle accelerator). Through measuring the radioactivity of the foil, they determined that it contained trace amounts of technetium. Thus, technetium was the first synthetic element to be discovered.
With this discovery, scientists began to bombard heavier elements such as bismuth and plutonium, with lighter particles such as alpha particles, neutrons, and deuterons. As they worked through the table, they started using even heavier particles to synthesize new elements.
So to make a new element, Tony Stark builds a particle accelerator and smashes a beam into a target. Voila, a new element with a hint of coconut.
But what element did Tony make? The movie came out in 2010, just after the Russian-American collaboration announced they had detected element 117. (All other elements, including element 118, had been discovered prior to this.) Tony must have discovered something even heavier than we have yet to create here in the real world.
One fictional substance that has been proposed as a possible identity of the new element is vibranium. In the novelization of Iron Man 2, Tony’s new element is labeled as vibranium. After the release of Captain America: The First Avenger, this tidbit was considered retconned- Steve Roger’s vibranium shield was made in the 1940s, long before Tony created his new element. Since it was Howard Stark who gave Tony the blueprint for the new element, one could make the argument that at the time Tony did not know about the existence of vibranium. However, Avengers: Age of Ultron establishes that vibranium is found in Wakanda. In Captain America: Civil War, it’s suggested that the Black Panther’s suit contains vibranium and may have been passed down generation to generation. Even though vibranium may be rare, it’s not absent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Finally, it’s not exactly clear if vibranium is an element in the first place. In the movies, vibranium is only referred to as a metal, so it could be a compound or alloy.
Whatever Tony’s new element was, it was a successful replacement for his arc reactor core. I wonder what Tony ended up calling the new element. I’m guessing “starkonium.”
Keep calm and science on.