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: – “Transparent Armor from NRL; Spinel Could Also Ruggedize Your Smart Phone

Featured Photo Credit: NRL/Jamie Hartman

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  1. jay said:

    So what this tells us is that ‘they’ have had this substance since the movie was released, since we know tech isn’t release into the consumer mainstream market for about 30 years.

  2. TraciR said:

    Calling it the same substance as in Star Trek is very misleading. It isn’t transparent aluminum, even if it has the element in the compound. Would you go around saying that water is liquid hydrogen? No, you wouldn’t because it isn’t.

    • sciencerocksmyworld said:

      You have a point Traci, but OTOH, it’s functionally the same as the description of transparent aluminium in Star Trek, does coincidentally contain aluminium, and could be used in pretty much the same way, so the analogy does work nicely. Have a great day! 🙂

      • Mark said:

        Traci R is absolutely correct. Alumin(i)um is a metal. Magnesium aluminate is a mineral and shares almost no properties with the metal.
        Is Sodium (the metal) the same as Sodium Chloride (table salt)? Nope. Nothing alike.
        What about Chlorine (the toxic gas) and table salt? 🙂

        This is extremely basic chemistry, and the impression that it would be “aluminium” just because it has an Aluminium atom in the compound gives really the wrong impression and completely misinforms the public.

        • sciencerocksmyworld said:

          It’s a valid point, Mark. We’re just saying that the material is functionally similar to what was described as “transparent aluminium” in Star Trek, so it’s a fair comparison, and the fact that it actually does contain a form of aluminum (alumininate could not exist if aluminium didn’t), just makes for a more interesting story. We have absolutely no intention of misinforming anyone.

  3. matthew said:

    it wasn’t used for construction of federation starships, it was used to construct a tank aboard a klingon bird of prey to transport humpback whales back to the future to communicate with a being that was threatening to destroy the earth that communicated by whale sounds. this was necessary because humpback whales were extinct in the future on this film. “they are not, the hell, your whales.”

    • Troy Pacelli said:

      Actually, Matthew, that is not correct. The material used to make the tank was ordinary Plexiglas. Mr. Scott traded the formula for transparent aluminum for the Plexiglas. And, transparent aluminum was, indeed, used in the construction of Federation starships – it’s what the viewports were made of (specifically referenced in the Next Generation episode “In Theory”).

      One can assume “transparent aluminum” might be a commercial name or a slang term, Traci. Plexiglas isn’t glass, tinfoil has no tin in it, and pencil leads do not contain any lead. You say you took an “aspirin” rather than acetylsalicylic acid. And ver

      • Thomas W. Yale said:

        Transparent aluminum was used in the windows of Federation starships, bu no, in the movie Scott needed a thinner material than Pexiglass to construct the humpback whale tank on the Klingon cruiser. If you remember the dialog, it would require and he didn’t have the means for production, so he and McCoy went to the manufacturer Nichols, but the manufacturer wasn’t able to provide it because it hadn’t been invented yet. So he gave the manufacturer the formula in return for the material.

        SCOTT: I notice you’re still working with polymers.
        NICHOLS: Still? What else would I be working with?
        SCOTT: Ah, what else indeed? I’ll put it another way. How thick would a piece of your plexiglass need to be, at sixty feet by ten feet to withstand the pressure of eighteen thousand cubic feet of water?
        NICHOLS: That’s easy, six inches. We carry stuff that big in stock.
        SCOTT: Aye, I’ve noticed. Now suppose, …just suppose, …I was to show you a way to manufacture a wall that would do the same job but be only one inch thick. Would that be worth something to you, eh?

        • Don Dakota said:

          He traded the formula for some plexiglass, they would have required decades to develop the technology, so now some 30 years later we may see it come to market 🙂

        • Jack Hammer said:

          You are wrong. Scott traded the formula for transparent aluminum for the plexiglass that he needed. Cherry-picking dialog to support your incorrect assumption is pathetic, but predictable. Scott needed something right away, and one of the lines of dialog was by Nichols, who stated that it would take years to develop.

        • Cml said:

          Scotty did, in fact, trade the formula for transparent aluminum for plexiglas. When Dr. Nichols saw the formula for transparent aluminum he says that it would take years to figure out the matrix. Furthermore, Dr. Nichols said that 6″ thick plexiglas would meet Scotty’s requirements and that they did in fact have it in stock.

      • Kris said:

        No, the plexiglass was going to be too thick, so they gave him the formula for transparent aluminum so it would not be too thick… I thought…

        • DS said:

          You are correct Kris. They needed tranparent aluminum and traded the formula to the manufacturer, who then produced the one inch thick sheet they needed to seal off the cargo hold for the whales. They didn’t use inferior and outdated six inch plexiglass.

          • James Doss said:

            “It will take decades just to figure out the dynamics of this matrix.”

            “Yes, but you’ll be rich beyond the dreams of Avarice.”

            “So, it it worth something to ya laddie, or should I just ouch up clear?”

            Scotty used plexiglass.

          • Thomas said:

            You are wrong. So is everyone saying they made 1 inch thick transparent aluminum. Scott absolutely used the Plexiglass. You can watch them lower the thick a*s plexiglass into place in the movie. So stop trumpeting like a know it all.

    • Don Dakota said:

      as has been pointed out by others, you are wrong. The tank on the bird-of-prey was made of Plexiglas, purchased with tech specs of transparent aluminum.

    • James Shepherd said:

      It NEEDS to be used to make the see-through domes on deep diving submarines so we can explore more of the Earths’ oceans.

  4. Stephen Tyo said:

    That is awsome finally found one of the most incredible way to make transparent strong material that has unlimited uses

  5. RICK SHAFFER said:

    You meant, “Like so many other Star Trek technologies, this one now has become real.”

  6. Christopher Greenwood said:

    I’ll bet that Apple and Samsung will want to use that for Smart phones

  7. Diamaant said:

    Carbon is more common… People can manufacture diamonds, which are more potent than natural… They use 26-kilowatt microwaves made of thick steel that heat carbon into plasma and then condense them into flat discs… However, there is more potential than that and ought to be considered for all structural materials…

  8. tim said:

    There was actually a real material referred to as transparent aluminum in existence in 1986. It’s called ALON, for aluminium oxynitride. It’s expensive, difficult to make, can currently only be made in small pieces, and is commonly used for windows in armored vehicles.

    This sounds like something new, which also uses aluminium in its’ molecular structure. Cool!