Scientific advances could bring superpowers to life

University of Auckland senior lecturer Dr Michelle Dickinson, reveals five ways science is bringing comic-book superpowers closer to reality.

Dr Michelle Dickinson
Dr Michelle Dickinson

1. The ability to fly

Flying is usually the most popular superpower that people want and, with the development of wing-suits and jetpacks, some of us have already achieved this goal.

Scientists have been working hard on incredible materials called high-temperature superconductors, which not only conduct electricity with no resistance, but also repel surrounding magnetic fields.

Superconductors are an exciting material for renewable-energy transfer as they have the potential to transfer electricity over large distances without losing energy along the way.

However, with their magnetic repulsion properties, wearing a pair of superconductor boots could allow you to silently levitate without friction or traffic slowing you down.

But a couple of challenges remain. You will need to keep your warmest socks on, as even high-temperature superconductors require conditions below -100°C, and a magnetic track would need to be continually laid out underneath you in the direction you want to go.

The technology is being used commercially with Japan's magnetic levitating SCMaglev train, which at 581km/h is the world's fastest — but not as fast as Superman, who apparently flies faster than a speeding bullet, topping 4,000km/h.

2. Hanging from the ceiling

If your preferred mode of transport requires a little less speed and a little more friction, then synthetic setae might be your sticky superpower selection.

Setae are the microscopic hairs found on the feet of a gecko, and the hairs branch out into tiny nanoscale flat-ended spatulas which interact with surfaces through van der Waals forces.

All these tiny hairs working together enable a gecko to support its whole body on just one toe.

Scientists have created several different dry adhesives designed to mimic the gecko structures by making high-aspect-ratio polymers with flat ends or long, thin carbon nanotubes nestled together as mini brushes.

3. X-ray vision

Ever wanted to see who is in the next room or even if there's any food left in the fridge without opening a door?

Since 2003, graphene research has led to some of the most exciting discoveries in materials research so far this century. With graphene's unique ability of being extremely stiff yet highly elastic, having electrical conductivity that far surpasses those of silicon and being able to form an almost invisible single atomic layer of carbon, it is being hailed as the material that will change the way we build electronics, batteries and water purification devices.

When it comes to light, graphene is capable of detecting a wide spectrum of wavelengths and researchers have found that sandwiching it with an insulator creates a quantum tunnelling effect which can be integrated in a transparent contact lens for a new field of vision.

This superpowered lens would enable you to see clearly at night, watch blood flow beneath skin and view the temperature of different surfaces through a thermal heat image.

4. Being invisible

If peace and quiet in your own sanctuary is more your cup of tea, then hiding from people wearing graphene vision lenses using an invisibility cloak should be next on your wish list.

Metamaterials are materials with specific and unnatural atomic arrangements which have to be artificially created in a lab.

Scientists have been able to position these atoms in a specific way that tunes the refractive index to a near-zero or even negative value which is the opposite of how natural materials behave with light.

This gives metamaterials the unique capability to bend light and sound waves in the opposite direction to what is expected, guiding the waves around an object to make it appear invisible.

Currently, metamaterials are being used to improve the bandwidth of static antennae.

However, research into electrically active metamaterials is being carried out with the hope of creating battery-powered invisibility cloak devices that guide different frequencies of light over objects, preventing them from being seen visibly and by radar and sound detection.

5. Protective body armour

Finally, if you want a full protective bodysuit, then you could build a whole-body advanced composite exoskeleton.

But they tend to be a little bulky. Something a little less obvious and more comfortable would be to choose flexible liquid armour as your superpowered protection system.

Encased in a vest or bodysuit, liquid armour flows around effortlessly until something hits you hard and fast, then the armour instantly transforms from a liquid to a solid, absorbing the energy of the impact and preventing the object from penetrating through to your skin.

There are two types of liquid armour being developed, one based on a shear thickening fluid containing silica particles, the other being iron nanoparticle magnetorheological oil.

Shear thickening fluids are easily demonstrated at home by mixing equal parts of cornflour with water and then punching the fluid mix.

The mix will instantly solidify if you hit it fast enough, but will remain a runny fluid if you move your fist through it slowly.

The concept is exactly the same in silica particle fluids and these have been integrated with Kevlar fabrics to create modern bulletproof vests. Magnetorheological fluids, also known as ferrofluids, require an electrical current to be activated, so instead of suits, foldable blankets are being designed which can be thrown over potentially dangerous objects and then activated into their solid form to protect bystanders from a possible explosion or flying shrapnel.


Original article appeared in NZ Herald's Scientific advances could bring superpowers to life


Michelle Dickinson at TEDx Auckland 2012