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Physics behind the arc reactor

It started with me ranting about how I should understand the physics of arc reactor more and then Sera needs some babel speak ideas for her Tony.

I know this has been discussed deeply by most iron man fanatics before, but this is the simplified version for people who can’t be bothered to understand the big science-y words. I’m not saying that this is accurate because I’m not a nuclear engineer either, and I hope I can get some feedbacks from people who actually understand this.

Since vibranium is not actually a real element, I’m focusing on the old arc reactor tech that runs on palladium.

Let’s do a bit revision on fusion, yes? During nuclear fusion, light atoms combine to form heavier elements; in the process, a small fraction of mass is converted into lots of energy. Fusion reactions are called thermonuclear reactions because high temperatures are required to overcome the coloumbic repulsion between the nuclei being fused, i.e., “thermo” for the heat required and “nuclear” for the interactions that occur.

Basically, what Bruce said!

The fusion reaction occurs when the fuel (two types, or isotopes, of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium) combines to form a super-hot plasma which produces, alongside the helium, neutrons which have a huge amount of kinetic energy. Sounds like the arc reactor!

Many articles relate the arc reactor with cold fusion because of the use of palladium as the cathode. Wiki: Cold fusion is a hypothetical type of nuclear reaction that would occur at, or near, room temperature, compared with temperatures in the millions of degrees that is required for “hot” fusion. Cold fusion is not exactly a true fusion reaction. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann achieved this cold fusion on a tabletop in 1989, but if it was a true fusion reaction, everyone in that room could’ve died from the radiation emitted. I think it’s safe to say that iron man’s arc reactor does not emit any kind of ionizing radiation (other than easily stopped alpha and beta) because tony would’ve been more worried about radiation poisoning than palladium poisoning.

 More recent theories (2005) through a complex interaction of hydrogen and a host metal (palladium, nickel), low-energy neutrons are captured by nearby nuclei, releasing heat without creating dangerous radioactive by-products. THIS.

The article was long and boring but it has images of the supposedly fusion reactor:

 It’s huge, probably just like the one they had in Stark Industries? The scientists who tried to copy tony’s miniature reactor couldn’t do it, and we’re also not tony stark, so maybe we haven’t figured out how to miniaturized it yet.


The reactor contained a pinch of powdered nickel (or palladium as I’ve mentioned before), a puff of hydrogen gas, and a dash of a secret catalyst. When the mixture was heated with an electrical current, a mysterious reaction occurred, generating large amounts of excess heat. The heat boiled water into steam. The steam could be used to spin a turbine to make electricity. Just like normal fission reactors. I don’t know how tony did this part.

Some people relate the arc reactor to a tokamak reactor. Wiki: A tokamak is a device using a magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. Achieving stable plasma equilibrium requires magnetic field lines that move around the torus in a helical shape.

At first I disagree with these people because I thought the reactor was used to power up the electromagnet used to stop the shrapnels from moving towards his heart? But remember when pepper helped him install the upgraded reactor and she pulled the exposed copper wire along with the magnet? And then she just put in the new reactor by touching the wire to the base plate?

But then I found this:

The movie interchangeably refer to the device as keeping the shrapnel out of his heart and keeping it beating. The latter is supported by both this scene and the comment by Dr. Yinsen that the arc reactor could “run (his) heart for fifty lifetimes. The opening exposition in the cave explaining the danger of the shrapnel explains that it takes “about a week” for it to kill its subjects. Given how fast he started dying both in the scene with the copper ring and when Obadiah forcibly removed the arc reactor, it’s entirely possible that the system is also acting as an admittedly very fancy pacemaker.

The copper coil is left over from when Tony threw together the miniature ARC reactor during his time as a captive. Since the ARC reactor functions as a powerful electromagnet to keep the shrapnel out of his chest, it can be assumed that the copper coil is really just there to act as a residual magnet if and when the main unit needs replacing. Since Pepper pulled it out and Tony didn’t have a spare copper coil on hand, he went into cardiac arrest. It’s really just there so he doesn’t go into cardiac arrest every time he needs to replace his chest piece. I’m sure he pops a new copper coil in there later on.

So, Tokamak basically is a doughnut-shaped chamber used in fusion research in which a plasma is heated and confined by magnetic fields. The basic shape of tokamak actually resembles the arc reactor, and the little circle of blue light should be plasma. The huge arc reactor in the first movie could be a fancy looking tokamak, I think., BUT there is no place for palladium (or vibranium) in this reactor, from what I understand.


More about tokamak:

A tokamak produces a doughnut-shaped plasma. To do so it employs its strongest currents to produce the largest magnetic fields through its toroidal coils looped perpendicularly around the doughnut ring. A current is induced in the plasma from high currents in the poloidal (or horizontal) coils in the middle of the doughnut shape producing its own magnetic field. The combined effect creates a helical magnetic field. To induce the current in the plasma fields a changing current is required in the poloidal coils, therefore producing a more pulsed plasma response.

This simply means that the tokamak needs power to create the fusion reaction. This is where it differs from tony’s arc reactor.

And then there’s the problem with the cooling system. The suit may have a sophisticated system but if you look at the one from the caves, it has a tiny fan at the back for cooling. But the reactor should produce a lot of heat from the thermonuclear reaction that needs coolant like water or molten lead. So when tony is not wearing the suit, where does the heat go? Must not be very nice to be near him with all that heat. I mean, Tony is hot but literally hot…? I don’t think so.

I think that’s it! Most people had the same theory so it goes back to cold fusion and tokamak, while non scientific discussions just speculate everything vaguely. If there’s anything inaccurate, just point it out! Maybe there are info from the comics or movies that I missed out? And if you have any question, just ask.


 -Vibranium is not entirely fictional. Irl it can be produced using cyclotrons, or circular particle accelerators, like the one tony built in his house, that can smash atoms together to generate heavier elements. But it is an unstable element that decays immediately. Most probably not glowy and in the plasma state that tastes like coconut and metal.

-Palladium has many isotopes. Not all of them are radioactive. I don’t think tony used the radioactive isotope for his reactor because in the caves, he got the palladium from the weapon components, so it cannot be radioactive. 

-Please don’t start with the 3 gigajoule per second energy it produces because even nuclear power plants irl cant produce that much energy.

-and the repulsors! They don’t obey newton’s third law for flying, sorry. There aren’t much discussion on the repulsors but there are plasma based military weapon in the making? Might not be as advanced as the Jericho or the iron man but it’s real!

No hating or condemning my ~research, please :) I did this just for fun.

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