Transparent Aluminum

It was mentioned in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and now, it looks like transparent aluminum has actually been developed.
A new type of transparent armor made of aluminum could one day replace glass in military vehicles.

The product is called aluminum oxynitride. It is being tested by the Army and the University of Dayton Research Institute in Ohio.

The material is a ceramic compound with a high compressive strength and durability, according to an Army statement issued this week. It performs better than the multilayered glass products currently in use, and its about half the weight. It is virtually scratch-resistant.

"The substance itself is light-years ahead of glass," said 1st Lt. Joseph La Monica, who heads the research.

Glass is still used in the new process, being sandwhiched between an outer layer of the polished aluminum oxynitride and a polymer backing.

The fact that glass is still used does not diminish the wow factor; after all, the material is still transparent, which is important.

That a material such as this could exist has long been a source of speculation. I remember discussions from my Properties of Engineering Materials class back at Cal about the properties of materials that allowed photons through but were still strong enough to build with. One of the exam questions dealt with Wonder Woman's Invisible Jet. The science behind it all is very technical (and I had to retake the class), but the fact that it's being developed is quite exciting. Consider, especially, the test the material underwent:
In a test this summer, the product held up to a .50-caliber sniper's rifle with amor-piercing bullets. Traditional glass armor did not survive the test.

Officials hope the product will prove even more useful when considering more severe threats, such as explosives.

"The higher the threat, the more savings you're going to get," La Monica said. "With glass, to get the protection against higher threats, you have to keep building layers upon layers. But with [the new product], the material only needs to be increased a few millimeters."

That means it may be too late for use in the Iraq theatre. Given the rapid progress Iraqis are making in rebuilding their nation, by the time this material enters mass production, the American footprint in Iraq will probably be drastically reduced already (or so we would hope). Still, who knows what sorts of assigments will be necessary in the future; and I could imagine that riot police will want this material in their shields.

A word now on the economics of production:
Traditional transparent armor costs less than $4 per square inch. The aluminum oxynitride is now at least $10 per square inch. That price would come down with mass production. And the material's longevity would make it cost less than the initial price tag would indicate.

"It might cost more in the beginning, but it is going to cost less in the long run because you are going to have to replace it less," La Monica said.

Beam me up, Scotty!

(Hat-tip: James Taranto)

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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