We have all seen the Iron Man movies, which laid the foundation of the second biggest movie franchise to ever exist, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This movie has brought to light some of the most futuristic inventions we could possibly imagine, such as the Iron Man Suit, and also J.A.R.V.I.S. But something else caught everyone’s eye, as that could really shape the future of energy production, and that is the Miniature Arc Reactor.
The Arc Reactor is a source of limitless energy that supports the life of Tony Stark and also is the power source for the Iron Man suit. But how exactly does it work? That is the question on everybody’s mind. Well, let us be of help.
The Arc Reactor is in the most basic sense, a fusion reactor. As we know, fusion involves the nuclear reaction between 2 lighter nuclei to form a heavier nuclei. The circular part of the Arc Reactor tells us that there are highly energized particles moving in a circular path due to magnetic field acting upon them,and thus generating energy through collisions, much like how the Large Hadron Collider works in real life.
We know from the movies that the Arc Reactor has a palladium core and emits a white-blue light (indicating the presence of Cherenkov Radiation, a phenomenon which causes white-blue light to appear from an underwater reactor due to nuclear decay). Palladium isotopes possess distinct nuclear properties, and as a result, the reactor produces more energy than required for it to keep running, meaning, it would be self sustaining! Palladium is also responsible for cold nuclear fusion, due to its ability to absorb hydrogen, as discovered by Thomas Graham. Thus, the Arc Reactor runs on lower temperatures that do not damage the human body, while also producing electricity directly through the generation of minimal amount of heat, resulting in higher efficiency.
Therefore, the operation of the Arc Reactor is initialized through the ionization of palladium through an electric arc, while the radiation(Gamma rays) thus generated, coupled with the collisions of the particles inside the core, produces a potential difference in the core, thus causing current to flow in the reactor.
But palladium comes with its drawbacks, such as its toxicity and its decay into Rhodium via electron capture. Despite it being given a legal limit of dosage by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, its toxicity is not fully understood. Later in the movies, however, Tony uses a Tesseract core as a cleaner energy source to keep the Arc Reactor running after suffering Palladium toxicity.
That being said, research is also being done in real life by MIT regarding energy production using fusion reactors at lower temperatures using cleaner fuel. However, this kind of fusion reactor requires a tremendous amount of magnetic field to sustain the reactor.