Navy makes transparent, bulletproof material out of clay

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

The R&D folks at the US Naval Research Laboratory have once again done their best MacGyver impression, creating something impossibly cool and useful (a new type of bulletproof glass) from seemingly mundane source materials (synthetic powdered clay).

While it might not be exactly akin to taking a wad of chewed-up bubblegum and a paper clip and fashioning it into a bazooka, the NRL took the clay material, heated and pressed it under vacuum (a process also known as sintering) and turned it into durable, transparent sheets.

This material is known as Spinel, and according to lead investigator Dr. Jas Sanghera, it actually is “a mineral, it’s magnesium aluminate”. More importantly, he added, Spinel is “much tougher, stronger, harder than glass” and “can withstand sand and rain erosion”.

Several potential military and commercial uses for Spinel

The material “provides better protection in more hostile environments,” Dr. Sanghera explained, and unlike most commercially available types of bulletproof glass, it doesn’t block infrared light waves. As a result, Engadget explains, it can be used to protect a UAV’s surveillance camera or a laser lens without hampering the operation of those devices.

Furthermore, the NRL said that the sintering method makes it possible to create optics in several different shapes based on the specific press being used. Spinel can be conformed to the surface of a UAV or airplane wing, and because it’s resistant to wave slap and saltwater, it can be used on maritime vessels as well. Spinel took ten years to develop.

Dr. Sanghera said in a statement that there are “a lot” of potential applications for the material, specifically mentioning that watches, smartphones and consumer electronics could benefit from the innovation. The military is also eyeing the material for transparent vehicle armor and face shield, as they would be far lighter than those currently in use.

Furthermore, the armed forces are also interested in using Spinel to better protect both visible and infrared cameras on planes and other platforms. Since glass does not transmit infrared, the optics currently in use are created out of soft, fragile exotic materials, the NRL explained, and have multiple layers to compensate for color distortions. Spinel could replace those materials, and Dr. Sanghera said he is also interested in testing it on space satellite sensors.


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