The Tech of 'Black Panther' Isn't That Far Off From Reality
This post contains minor spoilers for Black Panther.
One of the abiding pleasures of science fiction and comic book movies is watching the endless parade of future-tech gadgets on display. Old-school sci-fi veterans can tell you: Watch enough sci-fi movies, going back to the '50s and '60s, and it's almost like a parallel universe in which fiction presents a technology, then science catches up a few decades later.
Black Panther, the latest installment from Marvel Studios, is a movie you'll want to see for a lot of reasons. But it's also squarely in the sci-fi tradition of presenting tomorrowland technologies today. Here we take a look at three elements of future-tech science from the movie, then compare each to real-world developments from the world's leading research labs and industrial design studios.
We haven't quite achieved the space-age miracles on display in Black Panther. But we're closer than you might think.
VibraniumThe fiction: Those familiar with the mythology of the Marvel comic book universe will already be familiar with the mystical super-metal known as vibranium. Planted on Earth by a meteorite, and mined over centuries in Black Panther's native country of Wakanda, the metal absorbs any kinetic energy directed at it, rendering it virtually indestructible. Black Panther's claws are made from vibranium, and it's woven into his armored suit as well. (Captain America's shield is also made from a unique vibranium alloy, according to Marvel lore.)
The science: In December 2017, research published in the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology detailed a new kind of lightweight and flexible material that instantly becomes harder than diamond upon any significant impact. A variation of the carbon material known as graphene, the material combines two adjoining layers of flexible carbon, each one atom in thickness. When deformed by ballistic energy or any sudden outside pressure -- a bullet, say -- the layers snap together to become rigid and virtually impenetrable.
Developers say the material, called diamene, could potentially be used to create an entirely new class of protective coatings and armor for soldiers, vehicles, and even spacecraft. Captain America fans will note that the research was funded by the Basic Energy Sciences Office of the US Department of Energy.
Holographic displaysThe fiction: Ever since that Princess Leia hologram first popped in the original 1977 Star Wars, holographic displays have been a virtually mandated element in science fiction films -- Iron Man, Avatar, etc. Black Panther keeps the streak alive as King T'Challa and his team of technicians in Wakanda use wrist-mounted hologram projectors to manage a kind of perpetual, three-dimensional Facetime chat.
The science: Holographic displays of the Princess Leia variety are technically known as 3-D free-space volumetric images, and they're one of the busiest areas of research right now in optical labs. In January, researchers at Brigham Young University unveiled a projection system that produces full-color 3-D images that float in mid-air. The images can be seen from any angle, and the system does not require any projection surface or special glasses.
Using a technique called photophoretic optical trapping, the BYU system works by suspending tiny physical particles in mid-air using special projection lenses. The physical particles then serve as the projection “screen” for a second set of ultra-fine lasers. Move the particles fast enough, and you can draw lines in thin air.
The system can also generate different optical effects, colors, and images by using different kinds of materials – glass, tungsten, even tiny diamond flecks. The catch? As of now, the images are really tiny -- smaller than your pinkie fingernail -- but researchers are already working on ramping up the image size.
Flying carsThe fiction: Like any self-respecting technologically advanced civilization, the nation of Wakanda boasts superior transportation options for its citizens. Watch for a decidedly kick-ass maglev train scene in the new movie. Black Panther's strike team also makes use of an armored flying vehicle -- a flying car, basically -- referencing a science-fiction dream that dates back to the 1920s.
The science: The flying vehicles in Black Panther are explained away with some vague talk about the miraculous properties of vibranium. But in real life, there are several major initiatives already in motion with the ultimate goal of putting real flying cars into the sky. Major industry players like Airbus and Uber have gone public with their plans, and you can assume there's plenty of other work being done behind closed hangar doors.
In fact, depending on how you define your terms, we already have several flying cars in the air already. Single-rider passenger drones like China's Ehang 184 are basically up-sized quadcopters, and Google co-founder Larry Page is backing a kind of flying ATV called the Kitty Hawk.
But if you want a glimpse of an even crazier future, be sure to check out Germany's Lilium Jet, developed in part by the European Space Agency. The Lilium looks like the flying car we all envision in our heads, a closed-cockpit mini-spaceship that can take off and land in crowded urban environments.
There are approximately 7,000 good reasons to see Black Panther, which is one of the best comic book movies in recent years. The script has an of-the-moment cultural relevancy that's profoundly resonant, and the performances are about five clicks finer than what you usually find in this genre. There's also a totally bananas chase sequence that you don't want to miss.
But for those of us who like to track the strange rhythms of science fiction history, the film is also part of a proud pop culture tradition. Tomorrow's cool stuff today.