Navy Makes Armor Clear As Clay

Well, transparent clay, that they made armor out of

A Dome Made Of Spinel
A Dome Made Of Spinel
U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/Jamie Hartman

It’s a transparent armor so good it might turn the phrase “glass cannon” on its head. The Naval Research Laboratory developed a manufacturing process to reliably make a strong, transparent ceramic that also allows infrared cameras to look through it, which most commercial glass can't do. Now that the process is complete, the NRL is sharing the technology with industry so they can scale it up to make giant sheets of transparent, lightweight, bulletproof clay.

Called Spinel, the material is made in a lab from synthetic powder. Under the right conditions, it can be shaped into strong, transparent sheets. The NRL has worked with the material for decades. Earlier production strategies used crucibles and high heat, which left behind imperfections that made the crystalline glass murky. To reliably produce clear material, NRL used a hot press under a vacuum. An added bonus to this method is that it allows the spinel to be pressed into shapes--for example, a dome for a new camera turret or a sloping panel that's flush with a wing.

While the military already has ways of protecting its cameras and windows, spinel does it in a much lighter way. From an NRL press release about the material:

A "bullet-proof" window today, for example, has layers of plastic and glass perhaps five inches thick. "If you replaced that with spinel, you'd reduce the weight by a factor of two or more," says [NRL scientist Jas] Sanghera.

Because of the newfound clarity of the material, it could also work in lasers, protecting the components inside a directed energy weapon from the ravages of sea or sand while still letting the laser shine through. Now that the Navy has developed a reliable means of manufacturing the material, the next step is handing it off to industry and seeing what kind of glass-encased armored and possibly lasered contraptions they come back with.