Top Tech: Transparent Spinel Ceramic

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Transparent Spinel Ceramic in action.  (photo provided by the Naval Research Laboratory)

Transparent Spinel Ceramic in action. (photo provided by the Naval Research Laboratory)

Technology: Transparent Spinel Ceramic

Agency: Naval Research Laboratory

The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has developed a suite of processes to create transparent spinel ceramic, which is superior to the glass, sapphire, and other materials traditionally used for applications such as high-energy lasers, windows, and lightweight armor.

What is it?

It’s a new kind of material using a unique new process.

Commonly-used vacuum hot presses are utilized to sinter spinel powder into transparent solid materials. Sintering is a method used to create objects from powders.  The NRL method includes a novel spray-coating process to uniformly coat the spinel powder particles with a sintering aid. As a result, the amount of sintering aid required is reduced significantly, while still allowing the end product to be sintered to full density and transparency.

Additionally, the sintering process was modified to completely eliminate residual LiF through evaporation and thereby avoids unwanted chemical reactions.

What does that mean?

It means that the Naval Research Lab has created a process that reinvents the material of the wheel, so to speak.  Creating transparent materials is nothing new; humans were doing that in the ancient world. However, the type of material this is – and the way the military could use it – is really what sets it apart.  This kind of transparent spinel ceramic could be used to produce consumer electronics, high energy lasers, event transparent armor.

Think about that for a second.  Transparent armor.  If you could get it to change color and restore stamina we’re that much closer to a video-game like armor reality.

What does it do?

Let’s break it down to the basics.  NRL’s transparent spinel ceramic can be used to make the work of the service member a little easier, more effective, or lightweight.  Some of the applications involve new awesome window choices (the stronger and more durable the better, especially on deployment) and of course the awesome aforementioned armor.  The transparent spinel ceramic can also be paired with its patented BGG glass material.   Why would you want to do that, you ask?  Well, the pairing offers excellent optical transmission in the visible and mid-infrared wavelength range.  The low cost, ease of use, and production offered by glass provides additional advantages.

How can this help?

Okay, so let’s talk about the advantages.  The transparent spinel ceramic provides excellent transmission in visible wavelengths and mid-wavelength infrared (0.2-5.0 microns).  This is superior to sapphire.  The material is also versatile; able to process scalability to large sizes and complex shapes.  It is strong, rigid, and environmentally durable.  Not to mention cost effective.  The reduced manufacturing cost over existing technologies is a definite plus.  Also it’s easy to make in general.  High reproducibility, high yield.

My take?

Creating better, more effective materials is the name of the game when it comes to innovation.  We’ve come a long way since the ancient Romans made clear glass trendy and popular (thanks to manganese dioxide, of course).  This is another step in that progressive bigger-and-better evolution.  When it comes down to it, any advent that allows soldiers to be safer/more protected and is cost effective is going to have some serious advantages.

The military has often been at the forefront of technological innovation, constantly seeking affordable, long-lasting solutions to problems that impact not only service members, but humanity in general.  Imagine what could happen if we started using this kind of material on our typical glass products?  I think my cat will have a harder time with her cat gravity experiments (see: breaking stuff) if that’s the case.

It looks like plastic may have a real run for its money.  Is transparent spinel ceramic going to be the next big thing?  I guess that’s up to you.

Want to learn more?  Click here for more information on this technology!

Are you interested more federal inventions? The Naval Research Laboratory has a broad portfolio of technologies that are available for commercialization. Visit their official website to learn more!


Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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Top Tech: Transparent Spinel Ceramic