Clips, Science, Tech

What Can Be Blacker Than Black?

“Elevational Weights, Black Matter” (2010), by Richard Serra.

Anyone familiar with the works of Richard Serra, the American Minimalist, knows that he’s singularly devoted to a single color. His steel-plate pieces and circles are all utterly black.

Space is black. Acoustic speakers are black. Tar is black. Ebony is black. But all that black, literally, pales in comparison to a material created by Surrey NanoSystems, a British nanotechnology company, based in New Haven, England.

The substance called Vantablack is so intensely black that when you gaze into anything coated with it, you don’t see it. You find yourself staring into a black void and an unsettling emptiness. What you do see is the space around it. And you fathom its presence by its periphery, realizing that what appears to be a black hole is, in reality, quite solid.

Known to be the darkest material known to us, it swallows 99.96 percent of visual light, which makes it difficult to tell it’s at all, there.

It’s a coating, formed of a thicket of infinitesimal structures, known as carbon nanotubes, each like an incredibly fine drinking straw, but closed at one end. Its wall, made of a sheet of pure carbon, is no thicker than one atom. It’s so slender that not even light can enter it.

Carbon nanotube is one of the eight allotropes of carbon, the others being: (1) diamond, (2) graphite, (3) lonsdaleite, (4) buckyball, (5) soot, (6) fullerene, and (7) fullerite.

There are many kinds of carbon nanotubes as well. The single-walled variety consists of, well, a single tube. The multi-walled edition is a concentric layer of tubes, each stacked inside the other.

The structure of a multi-walled nanotube.

One of its prime applications is in the area of optical instruments, where it can enhance the sensitivity of space telescopes.  The glare from Earth at night (“sky glow”) and from the Sun, a far brighter body, tends to scatter the faint light coming into the detector from distant galaxies, stars, or exoplanets. By suppressing the stray light, Vantablack will cut down the noise, and help produce sharper pictures, explained Ben Jenson, Surrey NanoSystems’ chief technology officer, in a Skype interview.

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