How Transparent Aluminum Could Make Star Trek Technology a Reality

The character Scotty mentions turning metallic aluminum into its transparent counterpart, which was meant to be incredibly strong and help them in their mission.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, one of the Star Trek feature films, introduced a futuristic material. Called transparent aluminum, the stuff seemed to be solely the likes of science fiction, something that could never be replicated in reality. The character Scotty mentions turning metallic aluminum into its transparent counterpart, which was meant to be incredibly strong and help them in their mission. 

It didn't last long in fantasy. You might be surprised to hear that the material was first investigated during the 1960s. Known to scientists as ALON, the substance is a transparent ceramic called aluminum oxynitride, composed of equal parts aluminum, oxygen, and nitrogen.

 The toughness of the material — a laminated pane of ALON 1.6 inch thick can stop a 50 caliber rifle round — makes it a great option for infrared windows. ALON is also used to make armored windows and optical lenses.

Space is probably the best arena ALON sees itself in. As the possibility of traveling to space becomes closer to reality, we need materials that can withstand debris and micrometeorites. 

According to scientists, ALON's physical properties would make it a suitable prospect to withstand such hypervelocity impacts.

However, ALON isn't the easiest thing to produce. Aluminum oxynitride powder must be pressurized to 15,000 pounds per inch in rubber molds submerged in hydraulic fluid. The material, which is molded and opaque, is heated to 3632 °F (2000 °C) and kept at that temperature for two days. After two days, it is ground and polished.

As of now, the finishing process of ALON belongs to a company called Surmet Corporation, which produces the material for military and industrial applications. Dr. Lee Goldman, VP Technology of Surmet, has said that ALON was so much harder than glass "that when a projectile hits the surface, the hard steel core shatters into little pieces, and those little pieces are a lot easier to stop." Surmet is known to be the exclusive commercial supplier of transparent aluminum.

Now, while ALON is a reality, producing the ceramic alloy costs an arm and a leg. And so companies prefer using glass instead. The material is therefore continued to be created in small sizes, as the demand is less. That is unless we have new methods to produce the material in a comparatively easier manner or companies decide to invest heavily in producing the material. 

Keeping its properties and capabilities in mind, it is no doubt that the applications for such a revolutionary technology would be near limitless.