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Superman: Defender of Justice But Physics Lawbreaker

Not that you really need to know this, but Superman is a lawbreaker. The Man of Steel may have great powers, but they have nothing to do with the source attributed to them by his creator, DC Comics.

Physics students from the University of Leicester told a forum at the recent Comic Con 2014 gathering in San Diego that Clark Kent, even in his scarlet outside underpants and flowing cape, can’t get all his superpowers – including enormous strength and the ability to fly – from electromagnetic radiation provided by the Sun.

To do that, they say, he would need 6,560 times more energy than the Sun could provide.

Their research, published in the Journal of Physics Special Topics, explains that they measured how much solar energy absorbed by solar cells actually can be converted into the cells’ energy output. To do that they divided the total amount of energy generated by the total energy received from the Sun in a given time span.

For example, using this equation, scientists know that the most efficient solar cells available today achieve an efficiency of 44.7 percent. The University of Leicester students applied this equation to Superman’s ability to fly.

They estimated the surface area of his body that’s accessible to sunlight, and concluded that he absorbs 1,096 joules per second from the Sun. Then they calculated how much energy Superman needs to fly for eight hours at an altitude of 30 kilometers (about 18.6 miles) and overcome atmospheric drag.

Their conclusion? He’d need 207 billion joules of solar energy -- far, far more than he could get from exposure to sunlight.

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Physics’ law of conservation of energy dictates that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only converted from one form of energy to another. So clearly the Sun can’t give Superman all his super powers.

But, perhaps in deference to the Man of Steel, the students kept an open mind. Maybe, they suggested, he stores solar energy for future use when he’s not exerting his extraordinary abilities.

Alas, the young researchers concluded, that’s not possible, even with a solar cell efficiency of 100 percent. They also determined that even Superman’s stored energy would soon be depleted, especially given that their calculations focus only on his ability to fly, not his great strength.

In fact one of the students, Jason Watson, 21, of Oxfordshire, explains that a solar panel capable of absorbing and converting the amount of solar energy to meet Superman’s needs would require a solar panel the size of a soccer field.

Yet Watson evidently isn’t giving up. Perhaps, he says, the Sun provides energy besides electromagnetic radiation. Perhaps Superman can derive his powers from the neutrino particles generated by our star. But he’s quick to add that “we don’t know how he would do this.”

Hope springs eternal.

By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com



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