Scientists perfect material that looks like glass, acts like armor, molds like plastic

NRL researchers develop inexpensive process for sintering magnesium aluminate powder into transparent spinel sheets.

1 April 29, 2015
by Design Engineering staff

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory uses a hot press to make spinel into conformable optics, like this flat sheet. (Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman)

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory uses a hot press to make spinel into conformable optics, like this flat sheet. (Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman)

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) announced that they’ve invented a cheaper way to making transparent spinel, a gem stone-like ceramic with the toughness of bullet-proof glass but mold-able and significantly lighter. Formed by sintering magnesium aluminate powder, the material and new manufacturing process could have a wide range of military and consumer product applications, says NRL material engineer, Dr. Jas Sanghera, who leads the research team.

“The advantage [of spinel] is it’s so much tougher, stronger, harder than glass,” he says. “For weight-sensitive platforms—UAVs [unmanned autonomous vehicles], head-mounted face shields—it’s a game-changing technology.” Spinel could also be used, he adds, to make consumer electronics, like smart phones, with screens that may chip but don’t crack or shatter when dropped.

According to Sanghera, the ceramic material’s dense polycrystalline structure deflects and dissipates impact energy, whereas a crack in glass goes all the way through. Also, unlike glass, spinel transmits infrared light. Currently, the military is considering using spinel as transparent and light-weight armor for vehicles and face shields, in place of bullet-proof glass, as well as to protect visible- and infrared-wavelength cameras on planes and in other harsh-environment applications.

April-15-NRL-spinel-rectangle-3-360Past attempts to produce transparent spinel required melting magnesium aluminate in a crucible at 2000C, an expensive and ultimately impracticable process due to introduced impurities. NRL new method sinters the powered in a vacuum press at relatively low-temperatures. In addition, the team also refined the purity of the chemicals used to ensure that the sheets are uniformally clear and free of air bubbles.

Beyond flat sheets, sintering also allows for the production of curved forms, depending on the shape of the press. And, like a gem stone, the material can also be ground and polished to remove any surface irregularity introduced by the press.

To date, NRL researchers say they have made eight-inches diameter pieces but, with the new process, sheet size is limited only by the size of the press. “Ultimately, we’re going to hand it over to industry, so it has to be a scalable process,” says Sanghera. “We licensed the technology to a company who was able then to scale that up to much larger plates, about 30-inches wide.”
www.nrl.navy.mil



1 Comment » for Scientists perfect material that looks like glass, acts like armor, molds like plastic
  1. graham says:

    Wow, a real game changer for sure. Looking forward to seeing this product on the market.

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