Molecular Monday: Transparent Aluminum

Welcome to another episode of Molecular Mondays, a special biweekly series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe, both in reality and in science fiction.

As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I’ve known about transparent aluminum since I was a little kid.  It’s a see-through material that’s incredibly strong while also being incredibly lightweight.  In fact, it’s kind of unrealistic how strong and light it’s supposed to be.

But last week, while I was searching for something molecular to write about for today’s post, I found out that transparent aluminum is a real thing.  It’s more commonly known as ALON (or AlON, with a lowercase L).  The name, I take it, is based upon the substance’s chemical composition: Al for aluminum, O for oxygen, and N for nitrogen.  The more technical sounding name is aluminum oxynitride.

According to this video from Wonder World, aluminum oxynitride starts out as a white powder.  It’s pressed into a mold and heated for several days, after which it comes out looking cloudy white.  It’s then polished to make it clear.

ALON is now a product manufactured by Surmet, and according to Surmet’s website, ALON is 85% transparent to electromagnetic radiation between the near-ultraviolet and mid-infrared, a range which includes the full spectrum of visible light.  Its scratch proof and shatter proof, and relatively thin sheets of ALON do a better job stopping bullets than much thicker sheets of bullet-proof glass. Based on that, I presume it would also be good for making spaceship windows that can resist micrometeor impacts.

Surmet claims they acquired the rights to ALON in 2002 following a laboratory demonstration, but I was able to find video of the actual invention of this material dating back to 1986. Enjoy!

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