Vibranium’s the lifeblood of the Black Panther universe – the metal that helped propel Wakanda into a hyper-advanced technological society and granted Black Panther his superheroic abilities via a Vibranium-mutated heart-shaped herb. The Wakandan strain, sheared off a meteorite hundreds of years ago, has a number of useful properties – primarily, its ability to store more energy than any known terrestrial substance. As armour, it renders its wearer unstoppable; as sneaker material, it can neutralise leaps from tall buildings.
Could such a substance ever actually fall from the sky? Are there planets out there that could, plausibly, harbour vast quarries of Vibranium-like materials? And if not, how far along are we in inventing those materials, or similar ones? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of materials scientists for some answers – and while most denied the possibility of a Vibranium analogue existing on another planet (let alone our own), all proposed workable man-made substitutes.
Distinguished University and Charles T and Ruth M Bach Professor, Materials Science and Engineering, Drexel University, and Founder/Director of the Drexel Nanomaterials Group
We can say that with a high probability no natural material can have those properties. As we know that all the same elements exist in the universe as on our planet earth, no mineral of pure metal is expected to have properties of Vibranium. Some of the properties of vibranium can be achieved, though not at the same scale, by design of material structure and architecture using advanced nanomaterials. Piezoelectric materials transform mechanical pressure and vibrations into voltage. Charge produced by piezoelectric materials can be stored and used. Kids running around in sneakers that lighten up with every step demonstrate this principle. Light advanced ceramic materials, such as boron carbide and silicon carbide, are used as armour in bullet-proof vests. They protect due to their extreme hardness – they are harder than any metal.
Material architectures capable of absorbing blast energy are being developed and can, potentially, protect a person jumping from a high altitude (but, again, this will be a 6.10m rather than a 20-story jump).
Distinguished Professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Chemistry, Penn State
I happen to have a piece of Vibranium in my office: it’s called tungsten carbide. This is a metal which is used to form pressure cells to compress materials to extremely high pressures. Its corner is cut off; if you stack eight of these together into a larger cube there’s an empty space where those corners come together. If you put a sample there and squeeze the cubes together, you can get enormous pressures. When you do that the metal itself is compressed, and it stores up some of that compressive energy, and it can release it later.
Some of the material [of the cube in my office] has come off. It actually exploded while it was sitting on a lab bench later, spontaneously. Somehow the compression to extremely high pressures reorganizes the grain structure within this material and locks in some of that compressive energy as elastic energy that can be released later.
Now, Vibranium is supposed to be 1/3 the density of steel; this stuff is much more dense than steel. This is tungsten carbide. So, [we’ve] gotta do better than that. And it turns out that at Penn State, we’ve recently discovered a new material called diamond nanothreads.
There are thread-like material, parallel threads, one after the other, organised all the way through diamond nanothreads. Each of those individual threads has the structure of diamond. We have carbon atoms bonded together the same way they are in diamond, but in a very thin thread capped off with hydrogen atoms, and many of these threads, parallel to each other, may be one day woven together into a fabric. These bonds are extraordinarily strong, and they should be able to hold an enormous amount of elastic energy. (John Badding collaborated with me on the discovery of diamond nanothreads. His group made them; my group predicted them.)
The trick will be to get them to keep it, and not release it immediately. We don’t’ know how to do that — but if we could somehow build some kind of [ratcheting] mechanism into diamond nanothreads, then maybe we’ll be able to make some proper Vibranium.
Newmont Distinguished Professor, Metallurgical & Materials Engineering, Montana Tech
To make a long story short, the answer is no. Metals are elements. They follow a quantum order (the periodic table of elements) and so no new metals are going to be found, no matter what planet you are on. New elements are still being formed in very controlled, very expensive pieces of equipment, but they are not stable and would not do what vibranium does.
That being said, could a similar material be made? The answer is yes, but. To put it simply, “vibrations” would include both particles (you on a swing) and waves (sound). Absorbing those types of energy is not so much the issue, since virtually everything will do that in some way; rather, the issue is in how fast can such energy be absorbed. Many materials are available that absorb waves, but particles pack an enormous amount of energy that cannot be distributed across a material before some major change occurs. In essence, once too much energy, either from wave or particle, is absorbed, things mostly just melt. Attempts at making Vibranium have been going on since before Vibranium was put into comics. We are getting better at it with body armour, but it might be some time before we get there. One of the major issues is gravity, since that field has distinct effects on everything made within it. The real vibranium will be a composite of metal, polymer and ceramic probably produced off the planet.
Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, USC
No, I highly doubt that Wakanda Vibranium exists beyond the fictional Marvel universe. We have a solid understanding of the occurrence of stable elements and it is well documented in the periodic table. In fact, our understanding of the constituents of the atoms of such elements is also well established, which is the basis for my statement on their stability. Some features of Vibranium are observable in materials (with more than one elements to form alloys or compounds) but not nearly in the same magnitude as seen in Vibranium. There are materials that are used to absorb vibrations typically in the form of sound or heat, but none of them are going to be remotely as good as what Vibranium is made out to be in these comic books and movies. For example, viscoelastic materials (typically soft polymeric materials) are effective in absorbing sound but are not mechanically rigid. Some metals and ceramics can be viscoelastic but there are always trade offs between strength and the ability to absorb the vibrations. Materials used in armour (typically alloys or metallic glasses) have good impact resistance, but they don’t damp vibrations as effectively as the viscoelastic materials.
POSCO Professor, Materials Science and Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University
The energy-absorption property, coupled with strength — there are definitely not too many materials that have both of those. The everyday example would be car design. Those have been very specific materials, mostly steels right now, that can deform relatively readily – but it takes quite a bit of force to deform that part of the car. It absorbs quite a bit of energy.
Metal foam is a similar thing in a bulk material form. As you deform that and collapse the walls of the foam down, that again absorbs a lot of energy – it’s good for sound absorption, which could play in a role in the formation of a Vibranium-like material. These are real materials that have real uses: NASA researchers think that making fan blades (for aircraft engines) out of metal foam (faced with solid metal) would save weight and be stiffer. Afsaneh Rabei of NC State developed a ceramic foam composite material that is really good at absorbing ballistic energy (that is, stopping bullets).
It’s a growing class of material – I don’t think all the applications have been figured out yet. But another interesting part to this is that you can now 3D print something that looks like this, which means you can really control the size and shape of the cavities in the material. So, I think that maybe the meteorite origin is a cover story by the Wakanda, and that they have actually developed advanced metal 3D printing!