Gazing Into the Void
What You Can Do With Vantablack, the Darkest Material Ever Made
By LINDA LEENOV.
Ben Jensen of Surrey NanoSystems and a test sample of Vantablack, which the company says is the blackest black ever. Credit Surrey NanoSystems
Earlier this week, Donald Kaufman, an architectural color specialist, declared that the color for November is black. He may be on to something. Recently, Surrey NanoSystems, a high-tech company near Brighton, England, announced its new invention, Vantablack, which it claims is the blackest black ever seen, or, actually, not seen.
Vantablack, for Vertically Aligned NanoTube Array, is made by “growing” carbon nanotubes on a metal surface. (A nanotube is a billionth of a meter thick, or about the width of three gold atoms.) Light is trapped between the tubes and bounces around until it’s absorbed, so almost no light gets out.
Vantablack has enthralled not just the tech world but also artists and architects. Ben Jensen, 48, a founder and the chief technology officer of Surrey NanoSystems, spoke by telephone from his laboratory in Newhaven, England, about the material’s applications and why it might not be quite right for your home. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q. Why are people so excited about Vantablack?
A. The coating reflects so little light, three dimensions seem to disappear. When you look at Vantablack on some wrinkled aluminum foil, it looks like a black, flat, featureless void, even with your eyes right up to it. That and the fact that it’s the darkest material ever created.
How did all this start?
Growing carbon nanotubes isn’t new. But typically they’ve been grown at a very high temperature: 750 degrees centigrade. That would destroy most underlying materials, so they grew them on things like silicon, diamond and sapphire, which can stand high temperatures. We’re building on work to grow nanotubes at a lower temperature for microelectronics.
What’s special about carbon nanotubes?
It’s almost like an alien material from “Star Trek.” Imagine a drinking straw, closed at one end, with a wall one-atom thick. This straw is one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair, but it is 10 times stronger than steel, and 10 times better at conducting heat than copper. It’s been known to exhibit what is called “ballistic transport”; electrons travel through it with almost no resistance. Vantablack packs billions of these straws together.
What are some of its uses?
Ultrablack coatings, wiring in microchips, enhancing the strength of components in the aerospace industry, touch screens, ultralight wiring, to name a few.
But it’s captured people’s imaginations so much, everyone wants to use it: Architects want to create unique optical effects in a building, and to absorb heat and put it out.
It’s been announced that the artist Sir Anish Kapoor will be using Vantablack as well.
He has an amazing ability to see things that other people don’t, and he’s famous for his work in reflections and voids. We never imagined we would be involved with something like that, but his ideas are infectious, and my research scientists love that their work could be used this way. Right now we’re restricted to various sizes, but we’re planning on going large, room-size, even building-size.
So, if someone walked into a room completely lined in Vantablack, what would it be like?
If there was a light, it would be eerie, like seeing a bulb hanging in free space. You could see another person, but you couldn’t perceive the size, shape or depth of the space about you. You couldn’t see the floor. It would be totally disorienting. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to stay there.
If a Vantablack vase were filled with flowers?
You’d see the silhouette of the vase, but you couldn’t see anything in the third dimension, except the flowers, of course.
If you had a circle of Vantablack on your forehead?
You’d look like you had a hole in your head.
Some of the tech blogs have speculated about invisible airplanes.
When I read about making black ninja suits and black aircraft, I just laugh. It’s not a reasonable application.
So a middle-aged woman’s dream that a little Vantablack dress would make her disappear except for her head and hands is out of the question?
I think the question should be, why would she want a dress that makes her look two-dimensional?
Correction: November 13, 2014
The introduction to the Q&A column last Thursday, about the development of a new material called Vantablack, referred incorrectly to the prefix “nano.” It means the billionth part; it is not one-billionth of a meter, which is a nanometer.