Nanotechnology and the science behind the Spider-Man suit

What would you change, given the power to turn back time? Today, Peter Parker answers that question: the public knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity. Today, Doctor Strange ignores a friend’s advice and destroys the barriers within the multiverse. Today, after a long wait, Spider-Man: No Way Home is in theaters (in the United States, at least!).

  • Spider-Man: No Way Home presents a new conflict; actually, multiple conflicts, in that our friendly neighborhood superhero has at least five villains to encounter, with only science, his abilities, and his suit at hand.
  • Nanotechnology is the manipulation of miniscule particles to create complex structures that are stronger and cheaper than their traditional counterparts.
  • Spider-Man’s Iron Spider suit features cutting-edge nanotechnology, robotic spider appendages, and unlimited webbing, all thanks to science (and Tony Stark’s ingenuity!).
  • Theoretically, it is possible to create the Iron Spider suit, although we are still a long way from developing such complex technology.

The third installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man series continues the story of the webbed superhero (played by Tom Holland), following his most recent encounter with Mysterio (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) in an identity exposé we know all too well. With Peter’s privacy and relationships threatened, he seeks to turn back time, but instead ushers in old villains we made the acquaintance of in previous franchises.

This begs the question: how does Spider-Man intend to compete against more than five enemies at once? Assuming that both Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire’s iterations of Spiderman do not make an appearance, Tom Holland can only rely on his scientific background, his spidey senses and abilities, and his infamous Spider-Man suit.

The Spider-Man suit has gone through multiple designs through the decades, to catch the fiction up with constantly developing breakthroughs in science and technology. From the homemade hoodie and the iconic red-and-blue Spandex to the stealthy Night Monkey and the Stark-sponsored Iron Spider, all the Spider-Man suits have managed to successfully allow our friendly neighborhood superhero to conceal his web shooters and save the day.

Since its first appearance in the comic books and on screen, the Iron Spider suit has been gaining attention from the fans of the MCU, not only due to its technological advancement but also with regard to its emotional significance for Peter and Tony. As such, in celebration of the new Spider-Man movie, let’s talk nanotechnology and the Iron Spider.

What’s nanotechnology, anyway?

Imagine being able to produce new structures and devices by manipulating particles that can’t be seen by the naked eye—think Big Hero 6 and the lead character’s incredible presentation of nanobots. Similarly, Iron Man took the biggest leap for his inventions by utilizing the same technology.

Before Hiro Hamada and Tony Stark were ever even (canonically) born, in 1959, physicist Richard Feynman had already discussed the possibility of manipulating miniscule particles. Finally, in 1981, through a microscope that could see such miniscule particles, nanotechnology was born.

As small as one to 100 nanometers or ten times the diameter of a hydrogen atom, nanomaterials have exhibited unique properties that allow individuals to create anything as wild as the mind can imagine. Some rules of chemistry and physics render irrelevant at such a scale, allowing the characteristics of materials formed to differ substantially from their standard counterparts.

Nanotechnology is being lauded as the solution to numerous engineering, medical, and environmental problems at significantly reduced costs. For instance, with medical professionals finding difficulty in administering drugs and other materials into the human body and their cells, scientists are researching the possibility of engineering nanoparticles in directly treating damaged and diseased cells.

With nanotechnology, anything seems to be possible. And, as we all know, that promise only elevates in the world of superhero comics and movies.

The Iron Spider

Following the events of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tony Stark bestows upon Peter Parker his newest creation: the Iron Spider suit. Fans marvelled at the cutting-edge technology of the suit, but what does it really entail?

Evidently, Spider-Man has come a long way from the traditional Spandex getup. The Iron Spider suit utilizes nanotechnology in all its aspects. With the nanoparticles’ ability to increase the material’s surface and lock between molecules, the suit is stronger and more durable than ordinary metal or fabric suits, even making it bulletproof! Should it be damaged in any way, a deposit of nanoparticles would repair the suit at the wearer’s signal, which is why, as seen in the teaser trailer, at the iconic superhero pose, the suit immediately envelops Peter Parker’s body, morphing him into Spider-Man.

The most distinctive feature on the Iron Spider suit is a collection of robotic spider appendages that allow our arachnid hero to speedily climb walls and maim supervillains. It is without a doubt that these additions also utilize nanotechnology, benefiting from the tech’s strength and flexibility. More than that, however, Spider-Man’s wall-climbing can easily be attributed to Van der Waals forces interacting with the miniscule hairs on him or his suit (big thanks to the radioactive spider!), similar to Velcro.

The suit also features unlimited webbing, a huge development from Peter’s homemade web shooters. The webbing is characterized as being a “shear-thinning liquid,” or originally highly viscous and subsequently less viscous. Upon making contact with the air, the webs’ long-chain polymer knits and solidifies, making it a strong material. Interestingly, scientists have developed artificial spider web silk through inserting bits of the DNA into an E. coli microbe, with the product rivaling actual dragline silk. Although, we suspect that Spider-Man may have used different means to create his web shooters (we’d love to know how!).

More features are present in the suit, such as enhanced gliding, “speed-of-thought” communication, and digital camouflage. Hopefully, with this groundbreaking suit, Spider-Man will now be able to resolve any conflicts between him and the numerous villains in time to save MJ!

Expectations and reality

It seems as though life imitates art more than art imitates life, as seen through Jack Laser, an Instagram sensation for his imitations of superhero inventions. Laser recreated the Iron Spider suit using a heat vest, crystal paint, and more, and despite not using nanotechnology, Laser’s creation appears impressively close to its fictional counterpart!

But, is it actually possible to recreate the Iron Spider suit? Theoretically, sure! All you would need is a readily-available storage of nanoparticles on your person, a system to control the nanoparticles at your will, and a power source to enable everything to function well.

Suffice to say, we are still at the workshopping stage for a true-to-film Iron Spider suit, but when harnessed, nanotechnology may just solve the world’s biggest problems. As Uncle Ben would say, “With great power comes great responsibility,” as utilizing the capabilities of this futuristic technology would create even better inventions and solve even the most perplexing of problems.

WRITTEN BY ANNA DIVINAGRACIA
EDITED BY HANNAH MANUEL
GRAPHICS BY ERYN CHU

REFERENCES

Baidya, A. (2019, March 19). Is it possible to build a nanotech suit like Iron Man in Avengers Infinity War? Mensopedia. https://mensopedia.com/build-nanotech-suit-iron-man-avengers-infinity-war/

Brahic, C., & Shanahan, M. (2005, March 5). What is nanotechnology and what can it do? Azonano. https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=1134

Brockmeier, E.K. (2019, June 24). The science behind Spider-Man’s superpowers. Penn Today. https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/science-behind-spider-mans-superpowers

Hoke, C. (2021, September 24). Marvel fan creates Tom Holland’s Iron Spider suit, and it looks like real nanotech. Cinema Blend. https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2574005/marvel-fan-creates-tom-holland-iron-spider-suit-looks-real-nanotech-spider-man

Ihla, A. (2018, May 11). The untold truth of Spider-Man’s Iron Spider suit. Looper. https://www.looper.com/121973/untold-truth-spider-mans-iron-spider-suit/

National Nanotechnology Initiative. (n.d.). What is nanotechnology? https://www.nano.gov/nanotech-101/what/definition

Rehm, J. (2019, April 2). Bacteria can be coaxed into making the toughest kind of spider silk. Science News. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/bacteria-can-be-coaxed-making-toughest-kind-spider-silk

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