This Star Trek Substance Just Became Real

If you saw the 1986 movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, then you may or may not have noticed the mention of a particular substance that was critical to the construction of the Federation starships: transparent aluminum. Like so many other Star Trek technologies, this one has now become real.

A detailed news release from the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) tells the tale of this incredible invention:

Imagine a glass window that’s tough like armor, a camera lens that doesn’t get scratched in a sand storm, or a smart phone that doesn’t break when dropped. Except it’s not glass, it’s a special ceramic called spinel {spin-ELL} that the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has been researching over the last 10 years.

“Spinel is actually a mineral, it’s magnesium aluminate,” says Dr. Jas Sanghera, who leads the research. “The advantage is it’s so much tougher, stronger, harder than glass. It provides better protection in more hostile environments—so it can withstand sand and rain erosion.” As a more durable material, a thinner layer of spinel can give better performance than glass. “For weight-sensitive platforms-UAVs [unmanned autonomous vehicles], head-mounted face shields—it’s a game-changing technology.”

NRL invented a new way of making transparent spinel, using a hot press, called sintering. It’s a low-temperature process, and the size of the pieces is limited only by the size of the press. “Ultimately, we’re going to hand it over to industry,” says Sanghera, “so it has to be a scalable process.” In the lab, they made pieces eight inches in diameter. “Then we licensed the technology to a company who was able then to scale that up to much larger plates, about 30-inches wide.”

The sintering method also allows NRL to make optics in a number of shapes, “conformal with the surface of an airplane or UAV wing,” depending on the shape of the press.

In addition to being tougher, stronger, harder, Sanghera says spinel has “unique optical properties; not only can you see through it, but it allows infrared light to go through it.” That means the military, for imaging systems, “can use spinel as the window because it allows the infrared light to come through.”

The ceramic’s manufacturing process currently makes it expensive for commercial uses like an unbreakable smartphone screen, but as the spinel making industry scales up, it’s inevitable that we will see it used that way.

For more details, see the excellent news release on the NRL website.

 

Source: Navy.NRL.mil – “Transparent Armor from NRL; Spinel Could Also Ruggedize Your Smart Phone

Featured Photo Credit: NRL/Jamie Hartman

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