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!