Transparent Aluminum Is Now Almost A Reality After Star Trek

  • Transparent Aluminum shown in the fourth Star Trek film of 1986 does exist in real life and has wonderful uses.
  • The composition of equal parts of aluminum, oxygen, and nitrogen is ALON.
  • In the first investigation during the 1960s and 1970s, the toughness of transparent aluminum made it a great choice for infrared windows.

Materials scientists have been wondering if transparent aluminum could be created for real since the fourth Star Trek film was released in 1986. Recent research suggests that we may not have to wait until the 23rd century to achieve similar success.

The material in the above image is not out of a sci-fi film, this is transparent aluminum. If you are a Star Trek fan, then you should be well aware of this material. However, if you aren’t a Trekkie, perhaps you have never heard of this material. It is not a metal but a ceramic called aluminum oxynitride, which is composed of equal parts aluminum, oxygen, and nitrogen. It is known by scientists as Alon. “Alon is aluminum, oxygen, and nitrogen, and when you put them together in the right proportions, you get this transparent ceramic”, says Lee Goldman. 

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) began working on aluminum oxynitride in 2006 as part of the Defense Production Act Title III program, which is an investment method based to create, maintain, protect, growing, and restoring domestic industrial base skills. 2.8 square feet was the largest aluminum oxynitride window size prior to the collaboration. Surmet Corporation, a manufacturer of advanced material components, now regularly manufactures ceramic in sizes up to 8 square feet under the trademarked name ALON.

The ballistic glass shows a projectile exit point (left). The transparent aluminum oxynitride ceramic armor (right) has a lump and no exit from the projectile. Credit: AFRL

“Obtaining eight square feet is an accomplishment that we have been working on for years and couldn’t have done it without funds from AFRL and DMS&T as well as other organizations,” Richard Porter, manufacturing lead of the AFRL Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division, says in an AFRL press release. “Manufacturing a larger window that is both lightweight and durable is an enormous enhancement in enabling the warfighter to fulfill the mission.”

Research Started On ALON

Alon was first investigated during the 1960s and 1970s. That may be surprising that it has been around for such a long time. Even more surprising is that it has many uses. But where is such magical material used? The toughness of transparent aluminum makes it a great choice for infrared windows. It is also used for making armored windows and optical lenses. “What we do is turn the powder into a solid, transparent shape that looks like glass,” said Dr. Rick Kim, U.S. Navy Research Laboratory. 

It is immensely tough, a laminated pain of Alon 1.6 inch thick can stop a 50 caliber rifle round. The most bizarre use is in the use of heat-seeking missiles. Most glass absorbs infrared light, but Alon is essentially transparent and lets the light pass through with no issues. This means that guidance instruments inside the missile can see through the Alon Dome, while its hardness prevents scratches and cracks as the missile fires. 

As space tourism continues to rise and the possibility of flying in space becomes a reality, materials are needed that can take the brunt of the damage. Moving at thousands of miles an hour. Micro meteorites and debris carry far more energy than bullets. These are regarded as hypervelocity impacts, and scientists believe that with Alon’s physical properties, it would be able to withstand the conditions associated with the multiple launches and re-entries a space shuttle would make. 

Challenge To Produce Transparent Aluminum

It is difficult to produce aluminum Oxy nitride powder that must be pressurized to £15,000 per inch in rubber molds submerged in hydraulic fluid. Along with being difficult to produce is that when you figure out how to produce it, it also needs to be pure, and producing this material is too expensive in the eyes of those who need it. They are content with paying less for glass and the plants to manufacture glass for their needs, already. 

So, with difficulty in producing the material and the interest in building facilities that could produce the material for the needs is low. This material will continue to be created in small sizes. That is until new methods or a company decides to heavily invest in producing the material. As more industry is switched to Alon for their needs, the price of the product could drop to a point that makes it cheaper to use than other applications.

Wonders Of ALON

ALON can do amazing things. A 1.6′′ thick ALON plate, for example, successfully resists a huge, powerful.50 AP bullet shot that easily penetrates more than twice the thickness of conventional laminated glass armor, with plenty of energy left over to highly kill a plastic figure (mannequin) head.

Transparent Aluminum (a dome of ALON)

Surely it is expensive, so it’s usually reserved for high-performance applications, particularly in the military. Surmet Corporation in Massachusetts manufactures ALON for use in armored windows, lenses for battlefield optics, and “seeker domes,” which are clear round windows that cover the sensor heads on the business ends of many missiles.

Who knows that even a better material could be right around the corner.

Disclaimer: This information is covered based on the latest research and development available. However, it may not fully reflect all current aspects of the subject matter.

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