Star Trek is celebrating its 50th birthday this week and, as has become customary for Star Trek milestones, a certain amount of attention once again falls to the myriad real-life technologies that have emerged after having been predicted by the enduring sci-fi franchise. Though not always considered by core genre devotees to qualify as “hard” science fiction, Star Trek has pioneered the idea of multiple hypothetical inventions (like tablet computers and wireless communication) that later came into being for real – often with the fictional version serving as direct inspiration.
Now, it’s happened again: “Transparent aluminum,” a technology first suggested in the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, has been developed for real.
As reported via a video posted to Discovery, the revolutionary ceramic alloy (officially called Aluminum Oxynitride or “ALON”) is created by fusing aluminum, oxygen and nitrogen in precise measures; and was first observed by researchers at Oxford University by using a FLASH laser to remove electrons from aluminum atoms without altering their overall crystalline structure. The result was a material that retained the properties of aluminum but was also effectively transparent.
The applications for such a technology would be near limitless: The material serves the same function as extra-strength or bullet-proof glass, but is much stronger while also requiring significantly less overall mass-density. Providing windows for deep-space and undersea vehicles are among the top planned uses, but lenses for high-impact cameras and other manners of security glass are also a sought-after possibility. However, methods will first need to be developed to manufacture ALON at a reasonable expense, as current costs are quite high.
While later retconned as the default glass-like material used on Federation starships and space stations, the specific phrase “transparent aluminum” first appears in the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In the film (a lighter, comedy-infused entry in the original film series originally planned as a co-starring vehicle for longtime Trek fan Eddie Murphy) the Enterprise crew encounters an alien probe that threatens to destroy Earth unless it is able to communicate with humpback whales – a species which in Trek’s timeline had been hunted to extinction centuries earlier.
The crew time-travels back to 1986 San Francisco in order to “borrow” a mated pair of whales from a local aquarium in order to answer the probe and save the planet, with Montgomery Scott, Hikaru Sulu and Dr. McCoy tasked with arranging a tank to transport the animals. To accomplish this, Scott offers the (common in their era) formula for the material to a plexiglass manufacturer; offering to let him become wealthy off the “invention” if he secretly builds the tanks – which briefly raises the question of whether this is a risky change to the future (though the film’s official novelization clarifies that it is not.)
Star Trek: Discovery debuts on CBS in January 2017 and streams exclusively through CBS All Access thereafter.