Transparent Aluminum: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Steve Sopko – Service Manager, EDAX

I have been at EDAX three years now, and continue to be fascinated by the work our customers do. In fact, there are times when it seems like part of a science fiction movie turning to a reality show.

The year was 1986, the movie was: “Star Trek IV: The voyage home”. Now the plot centered around the crew of the Enterprise (yes, Captain Kirk) traveling back in time to find two humpback whales, and transporting them back to the future to save all of mankind. To bring the whales back, Scotty had to build a tank inside the Enterprise.  He needed a material strong enough to hold 18000 cubic feet of water and two whales. In trade for securing enough sheets of 6 inch polymer Plexiglas, Scotty trades the molecular formula for a future technology, yes, “transparent aluminum”, which, according to Scotty, can do the same job and only be 1 inch thick.

Scotty transparent aluminum
‘Scotty’ at his computer ‘Transparent aluminum’ for the Starship Enterprise

As I interact with our customers I began to take note of all of the materials our equipment helps to provide analysis for.  For example:
• Different types of glass; thin, flexible even bendable
•  A painting by Monet restored by analyzing the materials used to create the paint many years ago. By knowing exactly what was in the paint, a full restoration could be done without hurting the integrity of the paintings.
•  New, lightweight yet strong materials for phone cases and other products.
• The different metals and alloys for engine turbine blades – even the material that will be used on our space shuttles.

While watching the controversy over concussions in sports like football and how to design better protection in equipment, I could not help but think a solution will be found in a lab, from the material characterization EDAX equipment provides.

I searched the internet for transparent aluminum, and to my surprise I found it! I was a little amazed actually, as the term first came about from a Star Trek movie in 1986! Yet there it was in front of me. Was it a hoax? Was it real? Well, the answer appears to be yes, it is real. One use is a coating for bullet proof armor, clear, thin and lightweight.  The other, Oxford University Physics Department has created a new state of matter. Let’s take a look at what I found:

'Bullet resistant glass may linger on battlefields unless the price of transparent aluminum armor comes down'

‘Bullet resistant glass may linger on battlefields unless the price of transparent aluminum armor comes down’

(1) Known commercially as ALON, transparent aluminum armor is made of aluminum oxynitride, a combination of aluminum, oxygen and nitrogen. Before it can end up as a hard transparent armor plate, it begins as a powder. This powder is then molded, subjected to high heat and baked; just as any other ceramic is baked. Once baked, the powder liquefies and then quickly cools into a solid, which leaves the molecules loosely arranged, as if still in liquid form. The resulting rigid crystalline structure of the molecules provides a level of strength and scratch resistance that’s comparable to rugged sapphire. Additional polishing strengthens the aluminum alloy and also makes it extremely clear.
From: http://science.howstuffworks.com/transparent-aluminum-armor3.htm

'Experimental set up at the FLASH laser used to discover the new state of matter.'

‘Experimental set up at the FLASH laser used to discover the new state of matter.’

(2) (PhysOrg.com) — Oxford scientists have created a transparent form of aluminum by bombarding the metal with the world’s most powerful soft X-ray laser. ‘Transparent aluminum’ previously only existed in science fiction, featuring in the movie Star Trek IV, but the real material is an exotic new state of matter with implications for planetary science and nuclear fusion.

In this week’s Nature Physics an international team, led by Oxford University scientists, report that a short pulse from the FLASH laser ‘knocked out’ a core electron from every aluminum atom in a sample without disrupting the metal’s crystalline structure. This turned the aluminum nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation.

”What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before,’ said Professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, one of the authors of the paper. ‘Transparent aluminum is just the start. Read more at: http://phys.org/news167925273.html#jCp

It gives me a new perspective from the customer service side of the company. What new materials will develop because of the equipment we service? What fantastic invention is in process and will it be due in part to the analysis EDAX equipment provides? How will this research or discovery change our lives? Will it be in the form of a smaller, light weight phone or material thin armor for those in harm’s way?  A new energy cell for vehicles? Or perhaps, a starship, that can boldly go where no one has gone before!

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