Surmet Corp for ALON® Optical Ceramic Development and Commercialization

Surmet Corp wins this year’s corporate technical achievement award for its successful development and commercialization of optically transparent hard ceramic ALON.

Of the polycrystalline transparent ceramic materials that are available currently, ALON is the hardest and possibly the best there is in terms of superior optical quality, reproducibility and excellent ballistic performance. ALON transparent armor provides better than 50% weight savings over glass based armor, resulting in substantial improvement in system performance and life-cycle cost. ALON is finding insertion opportunities in a number of military applications leading to systems-level benefits. Some of the products, developed and supplied by Surmet include ALON domes for missile systems, windows for aircraft based reconnaissance pods; and ALON Transparent Armor for commercial private jet aircrafts, for military helicopters and tactical ground vehicles.

Development and Commercialization:
Aluminum Oxynitride as a material of interest dates as far back as thirty-five years ago when the early development work was done at the Army Watertown Arsenal. In the mid eighties, Raytheon researchers developed it further to make laboratory scale domes and plates. They demonstrated a combination of high strength and desirable optical transmission properties that were potentially useful for various future military applications.

Raytheon then put AlON technology on the back shelf. Around year 2000, Raytheon was looking to divest some of its technologies that were not part of its core business interests. Surmet purchased ALON technology from Raytheon in August of 2002 including all patents, process IP and services of three R&D personnel.  

The only prior experience Surmet had with ceramics was the high purity alumina ceramic components it used to build its Electrostatic Clamps as part of its successful and profitable semiconductor industry business. The challenge of taking on the development of ALON was appealing to Surmet because it was a really tough challenge, requiring large investment of time, money and process knowhow.

Surmet divested its semiconductor business (coatings and e-clamp division) in 2007 to publicly traded Entegris in order to focus on ALON development and commercialization. Acquisitions of 75,000sq.ft ceramic manufacturing facility from M/A-COM located in Buffalo, NY and a high precision optics fabrication facility in Murrieta, CA were also part of this ALON development effort. Surmet has its headquarters and ceramic processing and fabrication facilities (spreading over 17,000sq.ft) in Burlington, MA. Surmet has about 50 employees in three locations including eight Ph.Ds, seven with M.S. and eight with B.S. degrees.

Today Surmet has the capability to produce transparent ceramics in tonnage quantities and in large sizes, with consistently high quality, and in increasing sizes and complexity. In fact, one of the recent achievements at Surmet is the successful manufacturing and fabrication of several 18in. x 35in. monolithic ALON® windows. This is quite possibly the biggest transparent ceramic window that has ever been made.

All of this did not come easily. Over the past 10 years, Surmet has invested over $25M of its own money, in addition to winning another $32M of US government R&D funding, to advance ALON to its current state.

Though there has been tremendous progress in establishing a manufacturing capability as well as inserting ALON into many defense and aerospace applications, high cost is still a major issue for all transparent ceramics. There is plenty of room for major innovation in order to achieve significant cost reductions. Surmet believes that with further investment in an integrated plant, the cost of ALON can be brought down significantly in the next three to five years, facilitating use of this amazing material in many defense and non-defense applications.

About Surmet Corp:
Surmet was founded by Dr. Suri A. Sastri in 1982, based on a simple business premise, namely that today’s materials are not adequate to run tomorrow’s machines, devices and systems. For twenty years prior to acquiring ALON technology, Surmet has been successfully innovating and profiting from advanced materials solutions for next generation products and processes of its customers. Surmet was particularly successful in the dynamic Semiconductor industry where the need for tomorrow’s materials never stops.

In the highly cost competitive global market place, Surmet has been able to carve out a special niche. Surmet’s motto is to take lab inventions to the production floor. This is more easily said than done because cost of manufacturing is a key factor in any commercialization scheme and in the case of transparent ceramics it is even more so. ALON is a premium transparent polycrystalline ceramic and mandates that the material be one hundred percent dense and almost one hundred percent pure even while being made in tonnage quantities. Surmet has established capability to produce and deliver ALON transparent ceramic products of consistent quality in large sizes and quantities.