Field of Science

Shell Games

I'm an unrepentant Trekkie, I'll admit it. Remember when Spock, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Kirk and McCoy went back in time to San Francisco to rescue the humpback whales? Scotty got a local company to whip up some transparent aluminum to use to build a whale tank in the ship to bring the whales back to save the Earth.

In the latest issue of Nature, Robert Richie's group at Lawrence Berkeley Labs reports that they have created a composite material that mimics aluminum alloys in strength. Following nature's lead, they use ice as a template to build layers aluminum oxide and polymethacrylate into a strong ceramic similar in structure to nacre - the stuff of which shells are made.

The materials extraordinary strength relative to the component materials is due to the stacking of the layers, which make it difficult for macroscopic cracks to form. Could this type of process lead to transparent aluminum alloy?