What’s the blackest thing you’ve ever seen? Perhaps a street in the middle of the night with the lighting broken? Or maybe you’ve been away from light pollution after the sun has gone down? Well, there’s a new black in town, and it’s far blacker than anything you’ve ever experienced before.
In fact, the new black is so black that it’s actually pretty difficult to understand. But this isn’t just for show or to confuse your friends with. In fact, there are some important scientific applications for the new color and some really interesting tech behind it. And it just so happens that it looks incredibly cool as well.
This new black has been developed by a British company called Surrey NanoSystems. While it might look like it’s been Photoshopped on to the objects in the images, that’s actually not the case. Even stranger than that, the black you’re seeing there isn’t the blackest in the world. But it is easier to apply than the darkest.
To be precise, this new black is called Vantablack S-VIS. Its even blacker predecessor is simply called Vantablack. When it was first revealed in 2014, this new color absorbed 99.96 percent of light. And that’s all light – infrared, ultraviolet and visible. What’s more, the team at Surrey Nanosytems has managed to go one step further since then.
In fact, the latest version of Vantablack absorbs so much light that even the most advanced spectrometer can’t detect anything reflecting back from it. By comparison, Vantablack S-VIS can “only” absorb 99.8 percent of the light that’s shone on it. But it has some other properties that make it far more useful.
So how does Vantablack work? Well, it’s a clever combination of elements designed to trap light. But if you’re thinking it’s a standard paint or piece of material, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Vantablack actually utilizes tiny structures to achieve its black hole-style goal.
These structures are called nanotubes. They’re made out of carbon, and there are millions of them in a coating of Vantablack. Indeed, a coating the size of a thumbnail would be made of about 1,000 million nanotubes. So it’s fair to say that the nanotubes are small, then, but it’s also important to understand just how small.
Each of the nanotubes is about 20 nanometers long. Or in other words, you’d need more than 3,000 of them bundled together to get something with the same width as a single human hair. And it’s thanks to the super high concentration of these minuscule objects that Vantablack is able to absorb so much light.
What happens is this. Because of the arrangement of the nanotubes, light gets trapped in between them. Once it’s in there, it bounces around. So rather than reflecting back to your eyes, the light stays between the structures. And that creates the weird effect that Vantablack is most famed for.
Human eyes work by processing the light that reflects to them from objects. But Vantablack reflects almost no light whatsoever. As a result, we’re unable to properly understand what we’re seeing. Consequently, coating an object with Vantablack can have some peculiar effects that don’t seem to make any sense to us.
For example, if you spray a three-dimensional object with Vantablack, things become really confusing. Where normally we would perceive the changes in the depth of an object due to the different strengths of light being reflected, Vantablack negates that. As a result, what should be a 3D shape instead takes on the appearance of being completely flat.
You might be wondering what the point of all of this is right now. Vantablack certainly looks incredible, but what are the practical uses of a coating that doesn’t reflect any light? Well, you might be surprised to find out that there are actually a lot. What’s more, some of them revolve around incredibly important scientific discoveries.
One of the most interesting applications of Vantablack S-VIS is in optics. The Hubble Telescope, possibly the most well-known optical telescope in orbit around the Earth, uses a black paint to reduce light interference. And Vantablack S-VIS is a far more effective way of achieving that aim.
In fact, the black paint on Hubble is 17 times more reflective than Vantablack S-VIS. So you can see how this strange material could reduce interference on newer telescopes in one simple step. And thanks to the design of Vantablack S-VIS, that step is far less difficult than it used to be.
You see, while Vantablack S-VIS might not quite have the absorptive qualities of the original Vantablack, it’s also much easier to apply. It’s not a standard spray-paint by any means, but the new developments mean that it can be applied to large surfaces a lot more easily than its more light-absorbent cousin.
Where other coatings that are based on carbon nanotubes have to be applied at high temperatures, Vantablack S-VIS is different. It doesn’t need extreme heat in order to successfully stick to surfaces. And that means that it can be put onto electrical equipment directly.
However, that’s not to say that Vantablack S-VIS isn’t without its drawbacks. It’s not great at withstanding wear and tear, so it’s best applied to a surface that’s going to be well protected. Unfortunately, you can’t just buy a tin and apply it yourself either. So if you were dreaming of a blacker-than-black sprayed car, you’re out of luck.
That’s because there are several preparatory steps Surrey NanoSystems needs to take before spraying an object. Businesses can get the company to apply the coating, or they can license the technology. So it looks like that hilarious prank you were planning with the strange material isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
While most of us will never be able to get our hands on Vantablack, that doesn’t stop us being intrigued by just how odd the material is. It’s a great example of science making something that our human brains aren’t quite capable of figuring out. But what does the future hold for the weird coating?
Well it’s already been used in watches. And thanks to the ease of application, Vantablack S-VIS could soon be used in other commercially available, if expensive, items. In fact, this is a material that, as far as we know, is the second darkest thing in the universe. Only black holes are better at absorbing light. Now who wouldn’t want something like that attached to their wrist?