In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, vibranium is a rare and valuable metal that was brought to Earth 10,000 yeas ago by a meteorite. It’s lightweight, hard, strong, and nearly indestructible. Vibranium’s ability to store kinetic energy makes it highly coveted for its technological capabilities, as well as its usefulness to heroes and villain alike.
It was originally thought the only source of vibranium was a mound in the African nation of Wakanda, but as we discovered in the recent movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, there’s actually more hiding elsewhere in the world. And as you might imagine, for all the other global superpowers, the race to find and extract it is on.
The question becomes, what’s the best way to locate hidden vibranium?
There are a number of geophysical methods used for mineral exploration. Which method is determined by the physical properties you’re using to find the mineral, and it’s generally better to use more than one method to limit ambiguity. The light weight of vibranium is means it has a low density, it’s non-magnetic (though other minerals in the ore may have magnetic signatures), conductive, radioactive, and it absorbs sound. Based on these properties, there are four geophysical methods you’d want your vibranium detector to use — gravity, sub-bottom marine profiling, induced polarization, and radiation detection.
The gravity method uses a device called a gravimeter to measure anomalies and determine changes in density below the Earth’s surface. Gravity surveys are frequently used to map subsurface geology for mining. The low density of vibranium would cause an anomaly compared to the native rocks around it. Thanks to continuous advancement in gravimeter technology over the last 25 years, and the ability to link with GPS, there have been marked improvements in the quality of gravity data. This is particularly true in a marine environment, such as the Atlantic Ocean, where the U.S. discovers vibranium in Wakanda Forever.
Acoustic sub-bottom marine profiling uses pulses of sound to image the seafloor and to characterize geological information up to 1,000 meters below the surface. The different rates at which sound pulses bounce off of the seafloor and buried sediments are used to generate a 3D image. Acoustic sub-bottom marine profiling is capable of finding buried geohazards like landslides, and possibly meteor impact locations. The unique sound-absorbing quality of vibranium means it would appear as a void in the data, in an area that looks like an ancient impact site.
Induced polarization is a technique which could take advantage of the conductive nature of vibranium. An electrical current is used to measure the resistivity, and consequently the conductivity, of the subsurface rocks. Induced polarization requires a grid for the detector to move over to collect the most useful data. This method is widely used for mining and in hydrogeophysical surveys. The high level of conductivity of vibranium means it would show a much lower level of resistivity than the rocks and sediments around it.
There are many ways that the radiation coming from vibranium could be detected. Cloud chambers and photographic film can be used to detect radiation in an area. Once found, a handheld survey meter can be used, though such a device can’t differentiate between different types of radiation. A radiation isotope identification device can analyze the energy spectrum of radiation to determine what material is emitting it. Combining these different types of detection would be very effective in locating highly radioactive vibranium.
The technology required to combine these geophysical techniques into a singular device would be very costly, and unlike the highly portable machine in Wakanda Forever, the equipment needed to perform all of these methods and the network needed to run the data processors would take up a large amount of space. But then, I guess that’s why Riri Williams is a super genius.
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