Why Ant Man should suffocate

Shrunken superheroes have a problem with oxygenation

The Marvel superhero "Ant-Man" can shrink to insect size. What problems that would cause him, physicists have now investigated. © W1000 / CC-by-sa 2.0
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Super heroes with shortness of breath: the miniaturized Marvel superheroes "Ant-Man" and "Wasp" would have a big problem - if these comic and movie characters really existed. Because according to the rules of physics, they would suffocate as soon as they shrink to insect size, as physicists have determined. Two effects would cause a serious hypoxia of superheroes. But there is a remedy - if appropriate technology is integrated into the suit.

Whether Ironman, Hulk or Spiderman: Many super heroes from comics or films can perform almost superhuman achievements. Some help with unusual mutations to their superpowers, others rely on high-tech special suits. The latter also applies to "Ant-Man" and his fellow "Wasp", both superheroes from the Marvel Universe. Thanks to the exotic "pym" particles integrated in their suits, they can shrink down to submolecular size without losing their human power.

Breathing in miniature size

But could a human survive such a size reduction theoretically at all? One aspect has now been buttoned out by Anne Staples and Maxwell Mikel-Stites of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. Her question: Would the lungs and organs of the miniaturized superheroes get enough oxygen? Although this is not a problem for insects of approximately the same size, their respiratory system differs in some crucial ways from that of humans, as the researchers explain.

So the person takes the air only through an opening - the mouth. "Insects, on the other hand, typically have six to eleven pairs of breathing holes, usually one pair per segment, " says Staples and Mikel-Stites. Another difference: Humans do not distribute the oxygen directly in the body, but with the help of their red blood cells. In the case of insects, on the other hand, the respiratory air together with oxygen diffuses via the tracheal system directly to the organs.

Thin as on Mount Everest

What would change for Ant-Man and Wasp now that they have shrunk? As the researchers discovered, the miniaturized superheroes would have two big problems. The first is the availability of oxygen molecules in the air: "A normal-sized person takes a certain number of oxygen molecules with a deep breath, " explains Mikel-Stites. "But if this person shrinks to the size of an ant, it absorbs much less oxygen per breath." In the case of Ant-Man, this is only the 140th fraction of it. display

The reason: the effective density of the breathing gas decreases for the mini-superhero. In terms of body size and the volume of his breath, the oxygen molecules in the ambient air are much thinner, as the researchers explain: "The super heroes w You may feel as if you are standing on top of Mount Everest gut at 8, 000 meters altitude. "

Too little oxygen

Ant-Man would therefore receive just as little oxygen with each breath as in the high altitude air of the summit with corresponding consequences. "The body tries to work with less oxygen, and you start involuntarily to compensate for the deficiency by breathing faster, " says Mikel-Stites. But this often leads to high altitude illness or dangerous pulmonary edema.

Insects solve this respiratory problem by having several respiratory openings. As a result, they can breathe up to 20 times more air at the same time than an equally sized person. This helps to bring the necessary amount of oxygen into the body. Ant-Man and Wasp, however, only have their mouths to breathe entsprechend and accordingly little volume of breath.

And another problem is Ant-Man and Wasp: Kleiber's law states that the metabolic rate of an animal increases with decreasing size. The smaller an animal is, the more energy it consumes and the higher its oxygen demand. Thus, when Ant-Man shrinks to insect size, his metabolism rate, according to Kleiber's law, should increase 100-fold, as the researchers calculated.

Compressor in suit

But there is a solution to save the superheroes from suffocation despite these problems: their suit. "For Ant-Man and Wasp to breathe, a combination of air pump, compressor and molecular filter is needed, " say Staples and Mikel-Stites. Matching devices that still work effectively on a miniature scale already exist in microfluidic technology.

A pump built into the suit would suck in air, which will then concentrate in the compressor to a high enough density. The filter ensures that the compressed air is enriched with oxygen. Through an air hose, this oxygen-rich air is then directed to the face of the superheroes. "Because the suits include a face mask, the air supply can be easily integrated there, " the researchers said. Ant-Man and Wasp would be at least theoretically saved from respiratory distress. (American Physical Society Meeting 2018; abstract)

(American Institute of Physics (AIP), 20.11.2018 - NPO)