The latest release from Marvel Studios, “Black Panther,” starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira, is setting new box office milestones every weekend. And if you’ve watched the film, you’ve seen him wear his special suit made from a super-material called vibranium, which is only available in Black Panther’s kingdom of Wakanda.
Though vibranium is a fictional metallic element that can store and release energy, making it a highly versatile material that permeates the Marvel Cinematic Universe, understanding its properties make a lot of sense in real life.
Suveen Mathaudhu, an Indian American assistant professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at the University of California, Riverside, who studies advanced metal and alloy processing for defense, energy and health applications, said vibranium acts like a supercapacitor, a real-life material that rapidly stores and releases energy.
Explaining the scientific phenomena underpinning the titular superhero’s vibranium metal-enabled abilities and powers, Mathaudhu said in a press release: “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.”
“As scientists and engineers, we are trying to develop real metallic materials that mimic these properties,” he added.
Mathaudhu said the film is a landmark for STEM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) diversity in superhero films because both Black Panther and Shuri, his sister and a Wakandan scientist, 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.
Mathaudhu, added the press release, is an avid comic book and superhero fan who provides scientific consulting to the entertainment industry and has created several 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.