Transparent Aluminum Reality Versus Science Fiction

Transparent aluminum, well it certainly sounds like Science fiction rather than science fact. Until very recently it was a figment of the imagination of writers of the scripts for the Star Trek movies and television programs, according to memory alpha, in the world of Star Trek. “Transparent aluminum is a construction material much stronger and much lighter than its predecessor, plexiglass. A 1-inch thick sheet of transparent aluminum, measuring 60′ x 10′, is capable of withstanding the pressure of 18,000 cubic feet of water, which can be used in place of a 6-inch thick sheet of plexiglass.”

Now it exists if only for a fraction of a second. An international team of scientists led by Professor Justin Wark from Oxford University and including Dr Bob Nagler, Dr Gianluca Gregori, William Murphy, Sam Vinko and Thomas Whitcher has produced a new form of matter. To do this they used an extremely powerful laser based in Hamburg, Germany.

The FLASH laser produces pulses of extremely intense soft X-ray light with a wavelength of 13.5 nanometers. Each brief pulse is more powerful than an electrical generation station producing power for a city. The process of exposing an element to such radiation is called, “intense soft X-ray photoionization”.

The scientists focused the pulses from the FLASH laser onto an aluminum foil target. This aluminum foil was only 50 nanometers thick and the targeted area was less than a twentieth of the diameter of a human hair. The intense beam of light knocked out a single core electron from each aluminum atom in the targeted area. This rendered the aluminum transparent for all of 40 femtoseconds. A femtosecond is one billionth of a millionth of a second. What was amazing about this experiment was that the crystalline structure of the targeted aluminum remained intact.

This new form of matter is unlikely to be use as a construction material within a space ship. The scientists involved believe this production of a new form of matter may have applications in a number of scientific fields such as nuclear fusion, astrophysics and the study of planetary science. Professor Wark said of their discovery, “it’s almost as surprising as finding that you can turn lead into gold with light!”

Reference sources:

University of Oxford (2009, July 27). Transparent Aluminium Is ‘New State Of Matter’. ScienceDaily. Retrieved 8 August, 2009, from

Nagler, Bob et al. (2009). “Turning solid aluminium transparent by intense soft X-ray photoionization”. Nature Physics.