We Asked a Very Smart Metallurgist All of Our Very Stupid Questions About the Vibranium in ‘Wakanda Forever’
“It’s not just a metal,” explains Ulysses Klaue, a black-market arms dealer in Black Panther who is describing vibranium to CIA agent Everett Ross. To prove his point, Klaue says that Wakandans “sew it into their clothes,” and that it “powers their city, their tech, their weapons.” He also tells Ross that there’s an entire mountain of vibranium in Wakanda that the Wakandans have been mining for thousands of years.
Of course, vibranium has another iconic usage in the MCU as well: It’s what Captain America’s shield consists of.
All of which raises a buttload of questions about the stuff (buttload being a totally scientific unit of measurement). And so, we reached out to renowned metallurgist Suveen Mathaudhu from the Colorado School of Mines. He has actually done some consulting work for Marvel — to say nothing of how he proved Neil deGrasse Tyson wrong on the weight of Thor’s hammer. In other words, he’s the perfect guy to answer all of our very dumb questions about vibranium.
According to the opening sequence of Black Panther, vibranium came to Earth via a meteorite that crashed into it millions of years ago. Does that make sense?
Meteorites were humanity’s first source of iron-based materials, so yes. Most meteorites are made out of iron and nickel — just a chunk of pure metal. King Tut was buried with a dagger made out of this material.
So getting a metal out of space isn’t out-of-the-ordinary. However, it’s not really possible for a new element to come in on a meteorite because there are no gaps on the periodic table, and vibranium is described as a pure element. There are 118 known elements, and if something were new, it’d have to be above 118, which likely means it’d be very unstable and of super high density. Basically, it’d be really heavy and unlikely to exist in what’s called “an island of stability,” making it impossible for the Wakandans to use it in all the ways that they do.
The meteorite also transformed the local plant life of Wakanda. How would it do that?
That makes sense. Plants pull nutrition from the soil, and if the soil has minerals in it, the minerals end up in the plants — they’re called “hyper-concentrators.” When you take vitamins for magnesium, calcium, iron and things like that, those are minerals pulled out by plants.
How is it that vibranium can sometimes be silver, sometimes be black and sometimes be that glowing blue material?
The word fluorescence comes from the mineral fluorine, and when fluorine is exposed to ultraviolet light, it glows blue. So under the right kind of light, it makes sense that vibranium could be blue and glowing. It also makes sense as a power source. Any metal you can have a nuclear reaction with can be used as a power source. Uranium, for instance, is a metal.
Could vibranium really be sewed into clothing?
If you think about chain mail, and you just weave that into finer, tighter fabrics, it could do that, so yeah.
Let’s talk about Captain America’s shield. How realistic is that?
Spider-Man says it best in Civil War: “That thing doesn’t obey the laws of physics at all.” Sometimes it’s depicted as absorbing energy — like when it’s shot by bullets or Thor hits it with his hammer. But they don’t always show that accurately — like when Peggy Carter shoots Cap the first time we see vibranium. We hear a “ping” every time a bullet hits. But if it’s absorbing energy, you wouldn’t hear a thing.
Also, when Cap throws it, it bounces off of six things and then comes back. If it was absorbing energy, it would just hit the first thing and drop.
The only way it would be able to do both is if there was some way for Cap to switch the mechanism from when it’s absorbing energy to when it’s releasing energy. But I can’t figure out what the control mechanism would be because it’s just a piece of metal. It makes more sense in the Black Panther suit — which absorbs and releases energy — because it’s more logical that a suit would have a switch of some kind.
Okay, but every time Cap’s shield is absorbing energy, like when Thor hits it with his hammer, it’s getting hit in the center, but when Cap throws it, it hits the edges. Could that account for the difference?
That’s an interesting concept. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. If you look at a gear, the teeth are hard on the outside, but the inside is tougher and resistant to cracking and fracture. So they’re heterogeneously structured, where it has different properties across the same metal. Maybe Cap’s shield has a heterogeneous structure. Maybe the middle part is tougher, so it has more ability to absorb energy, while the outside is harder, which would return energy back.
Could Black Panther scratch Cap’s shield the way he does in Civil War?
Yes, vibranium could scratch vibranium.
Are there any real-world examples of a metal that’s as versatile as vibranium?
Steel. It’s used for defense — armor and weapons. It’s used for transportation — vehicles and vehicle technology. It’s used for buildings, bridges, biomedical implants and health care. It’s used for telecommunications. Maybe the people of Wakanda benefitted by getting an advanced, versatile metal earlier than the rest of the world, which is why they’re so advanced.