Black Panther's Secret Weapon Explained

Vibranium, the metal in the movie, doesn't exist in real life, but this substance might be the closest we can get.

This weekend, the Black Panther movie is taking the box office by storm.

The movie follows a character named T'Challa who, after the death of his father, returns home to a fictional world called Wakanda.

While the setting is imaginary, the comics' creators placed the scene in East Africa. Elements of the region's cultures, languages, and environment can be seen in the movie. (Learn more about black panther cats.)

In the Marvel Universe, Wakanda is mineral rich thanks to a substance called vibranium deposited on Earth 10,000 years ago by a meteorite. Think oil in the Middle East or lithium in Chile.

However, vibranium stands out for having unique properties.

The movie describes the metal as being capable of absorbing waves and other vibrations. Thus it's used for things like armor and weapons. The substance is also featured in Captain America stories and films, in which the protagonist uses vibranium for a bullet-proof shield.

In the Black Panther, vibranium is used in suits. Bullets that strike the movie's hero seem to bounce off.

In a blog post, author of The Physics of Superheroes James Kakalios makes a few suggestions for what might parallel vibranium here on Earth.

Kakalios is a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Minnesota, and his work has often mixed science real and fictional.

Graphene, he suggests, is the closest substance yet known.

Graphene consists of a single sheet of carbon atoms that are arranged in a hexagonal pattern. It's one of the thinnest substances ever made. It's both extremely flexible and at least a hundred times stronger than steel.

In their book on the substance, scientists Les Johnson and Joseph E. Meany explain that the material is made from graphite that is then chemically separated. Much of it turns into powder, and scientists are still figuring out how to turn it into sheets like plastic.

If they could, "you could put an elephant on it and it wouldn’t break," Johnson tells The Verge.

Kakalios notes that, in the Black Panther, blasts absorbed by a vibranium suit would have to go somewhere. Energy can't be lost. He suggests a phenomenon called sonoluminescence, in which waves are converted to light.

Theoretically, this might look like a beam of light beaming off a suit after impact. But in the movie, Black Panther's sister, Shuri, has engineered the suit to store the kinetic energy it's hit with so that it can be later used in blasts.

Josef Hapli contributed to this article.