The latest Marvel Studios film, “Black Panther,” will be released nationwide on Friday, Feb 16.
Suveen Mathaudhu, an assistant professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at the University of California, Riverside, studies advanced metal and alloy processing for defense, energy and health applications. He can speak about the scientific phenomena underpinning the titular superhero’s vibranium metal-enabled abilities and powers. Mathaudhu can also address the complex global issues in strategic materials availability for advanced technologies.
Mathaudhu is an avid comic book and superhero fan who provides scientific consulting to the entertainment industry and has created a number of museum exhibits that combine real-life materials science and the fictional worlds of comic book heroes. An active panelist at comic conventions, he recently appeared on a StarTalk Live! panel at AwesomeCon/Smithsonian FutureCon with Stephen Hawking to discuss advanced materials capable of taking humanity to Mars and beyond.
In the 2016 Marvel film “Captain America: Civil War,” Black Panther demonstrated his powers by leaving visible scratch marks on Captain America’s almost indestructible vibranium shield. This makes sense, since both Black Panther’s suit and weapons and Captain America’s shield are made from the fictional supermaterial vibranium, which is only available in Black Panther’s kingdom of Wakanda.
Vibranium is a fictional metallic element that can store and release energy, making it a highly versatile material that permeates the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a thrilling car chase scene from the latest movie, Black Panther perches atop a car being remotely driven by his sister, a Wakandan scientist named Shuri, while enemies fire at him.
“Hey, look at your suit! You’ve been taking bullets, charging it up with kinetic energy,” Shuri shouts mid-chase. Black Panther then releases the stored energy to flip an enemy car.
Mathaudhu said vibranium acts like a supercapacitor, a real-life material that rapidly stores and releases energy.
“Vibranium as a structural and functional material offers the epitome of materials advancement. In the same way that Black Panther’s suit can both protect him and provide power for his feats, future vehicles could be made with structural frames that were also batteries, allowing them to collect from renewable energy sources,” Mathaudhu said. “As scientists and engineers, we are trying to develop real metallic materials that mimic these properties.”
Mathaudhu said the film is a landmark for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) diversity in superhero films because both Black Panther and Shuri are portrayed as highly educated scientists of African descent. In the comics, Black Panther has a doctorate in physics from the University of Oxford.
“One of Black Panther’s hidden superpowers is being a role model who can inspire underrepresented populations to consider careers in science and technology fields,” he said.