Transparent aluminum was featured as a “futuristic” material in one of the Star Trek feature films. Over the years, fans and scientists alike have wondered: “Is this substance complete fiction, or something we could really create?” Like many things from the world of Star Trek, it started as fantasy, but inspired real-world scientists to try re-creating something from science fiction. Here’s everything you need to know about this material, both on Star Trek and in real life. Spoilers ahead for 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
The History of Transparent Aluminum on ‘Star Trek’
Check out the original 1986 trailer for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home above. If you haven’t seen this film, the basic plot involves Kirk and the Enterprise crew traveling back in time order to save the whales, which should, in turn, save planet Earth. It’s a humorous caper that was quite different in tone from the more serious film that preceded, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
A key plot point is finding the whales, but also devising a way to contain them (and the water they needed to survive) within the constraints of a spaceship. Mr. Scott has a solution: a material known as “transparent aluminum”. Think of it like Plexiglass on steroids. In the world of Star Trek, transparent aluminum was incredibly strong, and one of the only materials the crew could think of that could hold the weight and pressure of all the water the whales would need to survive in during transport.
But in the context of the plot, there was a problem. When the crew traveled back in time to 20th Century Earth, transparent aluminum hadn’t been invented yet. In the film, Scott breaks the temporal prime directive by sharing the formula for transparent aluminum with a 20th Century scientist, in order to outfit the ship with the crucial material. StarTrek.com notes that the “Plexicorp” scenes in the film were shot on location at the Reynolds & Taylor Plastics factory in Santa Ana, California.
In addition to playing a crucial role in the plot of Star Trek IV, transparent aluminum was also referenced on-screen during Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the TNG epsiode In Theory, Data mentions that the viewports on the Enterprise-D are made from transparent aluminum.
Is Transparent Aluminum Real? How Much Does It Cost?
The infamous “transparent aluminum” scene above was played for laughs in the 1980s, but the technology became real in the 21st Century. In 2009, Oxford scientists made headlines when they created the sci-fi material in the real world using a special laser. Live Science also noted early experiments with the material in 2005.
According to Science Daily‘s 2009 report, “The discovery was made possible with the development of a new source of radiation…The FLASH laser, based in Hamburg, Germany, [which] produces extremely brief pulses of soft X-ray light, each of which is more powerful than the output of a power plant that provides electricity to a whole city.”
Forbes reports that there are two methods of creating transparent aluminum in common use today. The first method involves taking a powdered aluminum-magnesium compound that is subjected to high pressure and heated, a method used by the US Military, specifically the US Naval Laboratory. This method produces a somewhat cloudy material that needs to be polished prior to use. An alternative method, which creates a slightly stronger and much clearer material, also exists. This end-product is called aluminium oxynitride, sold under the name ALON.
Today, it appears that the exclusive commercial supplier of transparent aluminum is a company called Surmet, which claims to be “the only company” on the planet making transparent aluminum. Since “transparent aluminum” is kind of a mouthful, the company markets the material under the brand name ALON. The material is sold today to make large windows, not unlike how it was used to create an aquarium wall to house the whales. It is also considered for use in military technology where a transparent shield or armor would be useful.
However, while transparent aluminum may finally be “real,” it’s also really expensive. The aquarium enthusiast site ReefBuilders calculated how much it would cost to make a traditional fish aquarium out of ALON. Based on their calculations in 2019, building an ALON tank in the standard 180 gallon size would cost $63,360 to $95,040. That’s hugely more expensive than traditional glass aquariums of the same size. In contrast, Petsmart sells a glass aquarium in that size for around $650. However, glass is more fragile and more prone to being scratched than transparent aluminum, so it’s fair to assume an ALON aquarium would last longer over time than a more fragile glass counterpart. All that being said, it seems that transparent aluminum was a lot more feasible than creating other Star Trek inventions in real life, such as a functioning warp drive.