Engineering Analysis of Iron Man Suit

The analysis of the Iron Man suit is presented in this article. The possibility of fabrication of the suit with the technology available today is explored.

Thanks to the advancement in technology, the suit is closer to realization than it ever was. In real life though, it would take a team of Engineers and fabricators to design and physically produce it. The character of Tony Stark on the other hand was able to build the first version of it (Mark 1) all by himself to engineer his escape. Although for the later models of his suit, he had robots and A.I system to help him out.

There are several properties of the suit that make it unique. It is an Exo-skeleton armour that has hovering and supersonic flight capability. It also provides increased strength and is  loaded with weaponry. The suit houses small RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenade) and flairs. The thrusters (Repulsors) in gauntlet can also be used as a weapon. They can release powerful pressure pulses.

Furthermore,  the suit also has an integrated A.I system.  The numerous mechanical joints in the suit (albeit covered)  give almost unrestrained manverability to its wearer.

Iron Man Bleeding Edge Costume

Iron Man Bleeding Edge Costume
Image Courtesy: Salvador Larroca and Marvel Comics


Exoskeletons have been a feature of science fiction for a long time. From the tripods in H.G Well’s  “War of the Worlds” to James Cameron’s “Aliens”.  In the more recent cinematic venture Avatar, Exoskeletons have again made an appearance. A very functional version of it, the “Mech Prawn” bio-suit that featured in District 9 helped in making a spectacular action sequence.

In modern computer games, body armours have been popularized by 343 Industries’ HALO. Similarly, another game Crysis brought forward the concept of Nanosuit, which is a fibrous exoskeleton suit. The fibres provide the same functionality as muscles and even more (e.g camouflage).

Coming back to Iron Man suit, it acts as an armour first and foremost. Not only it shields enemy fire but also a protects its bearer from the elements. It also counters forces of nature, particularly when moving at high speed. Meaning it regulates blood flow by applying even pressure across the body just like a pilot suit.

Physics tells us that when a bullet ricochets against the suit, it causes little problem. For that to happen, the suit material need to be extremely hard. However if a bullet hits the suit and comes to a halt, i.e. all the momentum has been transferred, than the suit must have a counter force to resist that momentum transfer. Materials that are hard enough to shield fast moving projectiles are not made of pure Iron.

Crysis Nanosuit

Crysis Fibrous Nanosuit

So the name “Iron man” strictly speaking is a misnomer. Certain grades of high carbon steel can achieve the required hardness level, but are brittle. Titanium alloys are the only material that fit the bill and therefore would be the only choice for the outer layer.

Impact Resistance

It has been shown many times in the movies that Iron man after completing his flight, lands with a tarmac smashing, trademark thud. Again, it means that all the collision force has been transferred to the ground rather than being absorbed by the suit. This can only happen when a suit material is extremely hard. In the comics the suggested material for the suit is Iron/ Platinum alloy but also fictitious materials like Vibranium. In real life, only diamond would match the hardness required for Iron Man antics.

Iron Man Mark 1

Iron Man Mark 1

It should be noted that even with the hardest material on earth, if there isn’t a layer of material that can cushion such impact forces than these forces would go through the body of the person wearing the suit. Needless to say, the human body cannot withstand such crushing forces.

Therefore it is imperative that the forces are isolated by a cushioning material.

One product that can achieve this is known by it commercial name as Sorbathane.

More details on the material can be found on this link.

The suit can therefore have a layer of Sorbathane on the inside to counter the impact. It should be noted that Sorbathane converts the impact energy into heat and therefore cooling mechanism is a must.

This technique of having a layer of extremely hard substance on the outside and soft ductile material on the inside is not new. The Samurai swords for many centuries have employed the same technique. The swords smith creates two different materials one ductile and one hard. The ductile metal is placed in the core of the sword while the hard outer material makes a  shell to envelope the core. This way not only the sword can slice through other materials because of its hardness, but could also bear the impact force when hit by other swords.

In one of the Iron Man comics, to escape the effects of magnetism from his adversary, Stark makes a special of carbon fiber suit, keeping it light but sturdy. However carbon fiber, as good as it is in withstanding stress loads is vulnerable to sheer loads. This may imply that bullets are no good against the suit but a blade can be.

Single Crystal Titanium would be the choice of many Engineers. Titanium though would make the suit heavy. Unless assisted by actuators or servo motors, it would be difficult for Tony Stark to lift his own hand up. The presence of actuators/ servomotors would add another layer of complexity in the suit and would require more power.

Thermal Management

An exoskeleton suit must provide comfortable environment for its bearer. The temperature inside should not rise above the human comfortable range 25 °C or the high temperature will trigger the body into perspiration, particularly as the activity level increases. Through scientific studies it has been ascertained that human core temperature is more important to regulate compared to the rest of the body because of the presence of vital organs.

Therefore with any such exoskeleton suit, long distance travel should be carried out only with a thermal management system in place. Note that the suit can reach very high temperatures particularly when it goes supersonic. The metal outer cladding would get really hot due to friction when in flight. The Sorbathane layer will act as an insulator and protect from this heat. However it is the heat generated by human metabolism that needs to be removed on priority. It has been reported that the average metabolism rate of an individual standing up and doing moderate amount of work is 209 Watts. For a full list of metabolism rate, please click this link.

With every breath, water vapours are exhaled by our body. Therefore the suit should have some kind of active ventilation system. And so it cannot be hermetically sealed. Compact cooling and de-humidification systems are difficult to achieve unless one goes for Peltier effect or Thermoelectric cooling. The Thermoelectric cooling devices consume a lot of energy but are solid-state and can provide both cooling and heating. However the Peltier heaters will either need to dump the extra heat or collect the heat from the ambient. The only way to archive this heat transfer is through heat sinks. The back plates on the suit can double up both as armour and  as  heat sink.

Energy Requirements

Hovering from the thrusters (repulsors) requires tremendous amount of power. The minimum energy required just for hovering 75  kg man + a 25 kg armour is about 300 Watts. This is the energy that will be used to push down the air for thrust. The figure is taken from human powered helicopter attempts over the years.

Bell Rocket Belt used for 1984 Olympics opening ceremony

Bell Rocket Belt used for 1984 Olympics opening ceremony

In the comics, the suit not only creates energy to hover but also enough to go supersonic. Tony Stark is able to power up the suit through the Arc reactor inside. The power density of the Arc reactor is high enough to furnish enough energy for the thrusters, the AI system, weaponry, communications, plus the thermal management system.

In real life, there have been numerous attempts of making a jetpack with flying capability similar to Iron man’s suit. Many of these jetpacks have seen successful flights. They have also been used to great effect to enthrall people, most famously in the 1984 Los Angles Olympics opening ceremony.  The fuel used in these jetpack has been mostly hydrogen per-oxide. Jet Fuel (Kerosene type) has also been used in a few instances. The flight time achieved has been in the order of minutes.

The only thing with energy density high enough to power the suit for several hours is nuclear power. Uranium energy density is 80,620,00 MJ/kg.

Although nuclear power does have an “Energy density” high enough to power the suit  but it does not have a high “Power density”. Meaning a large power plant would have to be attached to the suit for its power. Similarly Lead shielding would also be a requirement to protect the person from harmful radiation.

Modern battery storage like Lithium Ion is although energy dense but still would not be able to sustain power requirements for practical applications. For instance, Lithium Ion batteries, have a theoretical energy density of 265 Wh/kg. In more practical conditions, each kg of lithium battery at the pack level achieve energy density of around 150 Wh/kg. This would produce just enough power for the suit to hover for about 30 min.

The only thing that can possibly meet the suit’s energy requirements for practical purposes is Lithium Sulphur battery. This battery is still in its research phase, although it has been successfully tested in a solar plane. Lithium Sulphur can provide nearly three times more energy compared to Lithium ion battery. The energy density of  Lithium Sulphur has been reported to be 500 Wh/kg. The advantage that battery provides is that the suit can be emission free if powered up through Renewable energy sources.

The US army is working towards an exoskeleton suit. The project is called the TALOS project and details of this can be obtained from this link.

Many of you reading this article would have pondered on the possibility of making the suit. With current technology it is certainly possible to make the “Iron Man” exoskeleton suit. However, it would certainly not have the capability a Stark suit has.

Very detailed life size models of the suits are also available on ebay and can be tailored to a certain physique. Nonetheless, you are advised not to walk into a war zone  wearing one of those.

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