The Exciting Applications And Controversies Surrounding The World's Blackest Material

It's like looking into the void, or a cartoon hole, or a black hole. Surrey NanoSystems Ltd.

Black is by definition, the absence of light. If we consider black as a color, we are thinking of something that absorbs visible light across the spectrum. Over the last few decades, humans have been pushing the envelope of just how black they can make materials, an arms race towards the blackest black.

This void of color exists in many species in nature, from birds of paradise to deep-sea fish. If it could be replicated, it could have a wealth of applications.

The most well-known is Vantablack, which has become synonymous with incredibly black paints. Developed by the UK's Surrey NanoSystems back in 2014, the material is among the most light-absorbing out there, trapping 99.965 percent of visible red light shining perpendicular to the material. The “VANTA” part of the name comes from the acronym for vertically aligned nanotube arrays, peculiar microstructures made of carbon nanotubes.

These are arranged like microscopic forests extending from the surface. The incredible properties of carbon nanotubes are accentuated in these VANTAs. However, Vantablack is not the blackest material created.

The blackest material was developed last year by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has achieved a 99.995 percent absorption, significantly blacker than the previous record holder. 

"Our material is 10 times blacker than anything that’s ever been reported, but I think the blackest black is a constantly moving target. Someone will find a blacker material, and eventually we’ll understand all the underlying mechanisms, and will be able to properly engineer the ultimate black," MIT's Professor Brian Wardle said when the research was announced.

The Redemption of Vanity is a work of art by MIT artist-in-residence Diemut Strebe that has been realized together with MIT's Professor Brian Wardle. A diamond is coated in the blackest material known. Diemut Strebe

The search for the ultimate black is not merely a vanity project, an attempt to beat nature at its own game. While the most newsworthy applications of Vantablack has been commercial collaborations, there are important scientific and technological endeavors that benefit from an incredible light-absorbing coating.

"Very black materials have a range of applications. They can be used to cover parts inside telescopes to remove the stray light scattered around inside and improve their sensitivity. This could allow telescopes to see the very faintest stars more clearly," physicist Dr Paul Coxon from the University of Cambridge told IFLScience. "Their carbon forest-style structure makes them very good at conducting heat too, which makes them potentially ideal costing for thermally sensitive instruments or electronics, such as thermal infrared cameras."

Taking inspiration from deep-sea creatures that use the ability to absorb so much light they essentially disappear in the inky depths, its applications for stealth weaponry like aircraft haven't been ignored by the defense and space sectors either. 

It's not just the science and technology industries that sat up and paid attention though. While it is very difficult to create and apply, the development of such an extreme color couldn't go unnoticed by the art world. The color black has been sought after, celebrated, and rejected across styles and epochs. But the blackest paint led to a major discussion about how art, money, and power play into each other in the 21st century.

In 2016, the exclusive right to use Vantablack was bought by British artist Anish Kapoor. The idea that one person could own the right to a pigment caused a backlash in the art community, with artist Christian Furr demuring, “I’ve never heard of an artist monopolizing a material. It isn’t right that it belongs to one man," according to The Guardian

Enter, artist Stuart Semple. Semple created and released PINK, the world's pinkest pink paint. He made it affordable and available to use for everyone in the world. Well, almost everyone. Anish Kapoor was banned. When buying the paint, you actually have to state that you're not Kapoor or associated with him. Semple made his stance on the exclusive use of color clear. 

Kapoor's response via Instagram simply spurred Semple on to push the boundaries of developing readily available highly unusual pigments, including blacks.

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First was a black paint called Blacker Black; not nearly as black as Vantablack but significantly blacker than any commercially available paint. He quickly improved that with Black 2.0, which is described as the "world's mattest, flattest black art material" and absorbs up to 96 percent of light. On top of being easy to apply and non-toxic, it surprisingly smells like cherries.  

Semple continued to study ways to improve his black and released Black 3.0 in 2019, also not available to Anish Kapoor. With up to 99 percent absorption, it is the blackest commercially available acrylic paint. It can't be used in the same way as Vantablack or other carbon nanotubes coating. It won't cover the body of a car or the interior of a telescope, for example. But we bought a tube and it is quite impressive on both canvasses and plastic. And it does smell of cherries.   

Even a single coat of Black 3.0 is enough to create a striking effect on this 3D-printed replica of Comet 67P. (C) A Carpineti
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