A physician friend recently made a Facebook post about Wolverine's healing factor. Apparently, that was not the first time the question came up online. However, this got me thinking about other superheroes' possible problems, and came up with a question.
Is Iceman really cold?
The Short Answer
Iceman should burn up when he uses his powers.
The Long Answer
The laws of thermodynamics are a set of physical rules that determine how heat and other forms of energy flow. The four laws laws of thermodynamics are, in their simplest forms:
- The Zeroth Law: Any two objects with the same temperature cannot exchange heat.
- The First Law: The total amount of energy in an isolated set of objects is constant. So if object A gives energy to object B, B will convert part of that energy as work done on it, and the remainder as an increase in the thermal energy of B
- The Second Law: Thermal energy can only flow, all by itself without help, from a warmer body to a colder body. Warm and cold are defined in temperature.
- The Third Law: The temperature of absolute zero (0 K, -273.15°C exactly) can never be attained.
Iceman is a Marvel Comic superhero with the ability to produce ice at will. Marvel lore states that he felt cold when he first experienced his powers, and eventually was able to harness this into creating structures made of ice and snow out of thin air. Basically, he is a human refrigerator.
Looking around for the answer, I came across this paper that explains that Iceman should not have the amount of energy needed to actually create ice. I totally agree with these results, however this still assumes that he should be safe even if somehow he gets the amount energy needed.
Let us look at this logically: Iceman is in trouble and has to create a wall of ice. In order to create ice, we would need a lot of water.
High school thermodynamics state that ice requires a lot of heat to melt down, as compared to other materials. And there is the fact that water vapour releases plenty of heat when it condenses, so that should mean it requires at least the same amount of energy to make water evaporate. If the ice wall Iceman needs is 100 kg in mass, then the total amount of energy he would need to use up is at least 59,700 kJ. Basing on the paper on Iceman in the link above, , he should have to use the amount of energy found in 400 times the amount of food the normal person consumes in a day. That could mean, in our simpler analysis, that Iceman needs to absorb 60 MJ of thermal energy to make enough ice for a small wall. Keep in mind that this has to be done in less than five seconds, or else Iceman is in deep trouble! This then results to a power rating of at least 12 MW.
How much is 12 MW? A typical home refrigerator was a power rating of 500W. This makes Iceman the equivalent of 24,000 home refrigerators.
The comparison to a refrigerator is not coincidental; fridges are cold on the inside, but release tons of heat on the outside, as anyone who has tried drying off their shoes at the back of the fridge could attest. Now, imagine the heat produced by 24,000 fridges, and you can see that Iceman, despite making a cold ice wall, is actually getting warmer as he uses his powers. Since he also appears to make the surroundings colder, the first law of thermodynamics then requires that Iceman should, at the very least, get very hot to the point that all the heat energy from all that water vapour (which is the same as the energy released by 24,000 refrigerators) is accounted for.
All that thermal energy kept inside his body with no way out would mean that Iceman soon should get hot enough for the fat and muscle tissue in his body to react with oxygen and release chemical energy in the form of heat. In plain English, Iceman should start to quite literally burn up.
So not only is Iceman pretty useless after the initial freezing, but he is also a liability to the team, exposing them to unnecessary dangers from his constant (or one-off?) bouts with flames.
Applications of Physical Concepts
The laws of thermodynamics are the laws of physics that allowed us to finally be masters of our own destiny. Upon the discovery of the laws, we have uncovered the possibilities that lead to the invention of the engines we use in our vehicles, and the design of machines that make the most efficient use of the energy they are supplied with. Without the understanding of the laws of thermodynamics, Iceman would probably never been thought of as a comic book character at all.
That was actually fun, having a real-life conversation that led to this post. I hope we get more of these!
- water vapour releases plenty of heat when it condenses,