Getting Science from Science Fiction


Via Aaron Williams: Scientists have gone and created transparent aluminum. Or did they actually get it from a Scottish engineer who talked into his computer mouse?

Oxford scientists have created a transparent form of aluminium by bombarding the metal with the world’s most powerful soft X-ray laser. “Transparent aluminium” previously only existed in science fiction, featuring in the movie “Star Trek IV,” but the real material is an exotic new state of matter with implications for planetary science and nuclear fusion.

In the journal Nature Physics an international team, led by Oxford University scientists, report that a short pulse from the FLASH laser “knocked out” a core electron from every aluminium atom in a sample without disrupting the metal’s crystalline structure. This turned the aluminium nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation.

“What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before,” said Professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, one of the authors of the paper. “Transparent aluminium is just the start. The physical properties of the matter we are creating are relevant to the conditions inside large planets, and we also hope that by studying it we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on during the creation of ‘miniature stars’ created by high-power laser implosions, which may one day allow the power of nuclear fusion to be harnessed here on Earth.”

The discovery was made possible with the development of a new source of radiation that is ten billion times brighter than any synchrotron in the world (such as the UK’s Diamond Light Source). The FLASH laser, based in Hamburg, Germany, produces extremely brief pulses of soft X-ray light, each of which is more powerful than the output of a power plant that provides electricity to a whole city.

What makes this story even neater is that, as cool as transparent aluminum may be, everything else about this experiment ended up being even cooler. New sources of radiation billions of times brighter than any synchotron on Earth? Pulses of X-rays more powerful than a power plant’s output? A step toward nuclear fusion? Gaining insight into the creation of stars? Holy guacamole, science is awesome!

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  1. Sharon E. Dreyer Said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    This is a great article. Thanks for adding to the information about transparent aluminum.

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