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Published on Sep 21, 2018
Spinel is actually a mineral, it's magnesium aluminate, says Dr. Jas Sanghera, who leads the research. The advantage is it's so much tougher, stronger, harder than glass. It provides better protection in more hostile environments—so it can withstand sand and rain erosion. As a more durable material, a thinner layer of spinel can give better performance than glass. For weight-sensitive platforms-UAVs [unmanned autonomous vehicles], head-mounted face shields—it's a game-changing technology.
NRL invented a new way of making transparent spinel, using a hot press, called sintering. It's a low-temperature process, and the size of the pieces is limited only by the size of the press. Ultimately, we're going to hand it over to industry, says Sanghera, so it has to be a scalable process. In the lab, they made pieces eight inches in diameter. Then we licensed the technology to a company who was able then to scale that up to much larger plates, about 30-inches wide. The sintering method also allows NRL to make optics in a number of shapes, conformal with the surface of an airplane or UAV wing, depending on the shape of the press.
In addition to being tougher, stronger, harder, Sanghera says spinel has unique optical properties; not only can you see through it, but it allows infrared light to go through it. That means the military, for imaging systems, can use spinel as the window because it allows the infrared light to come through.
NRL is also looking at spinel for the windows on lasers operating in maritime and other hostile environments. I've got to worry about wave slap and saltwater and things like that, and gun blasts going off—it's got to be resistant to all that. And so that's where spinel comes into its own, says Sanghera.
Says Sanghera, Everything we do, we're trying to push the mission. It's designed to either enable a new application, a new capability—or enhance an existing one.