The New Black.

A British company called Surrey NanoSystems has invented the world’s darkest man-made substance: Vantablack®. In it, lies the seeds of a design revolution.

Published: November 2017
Video/Photos: SURREYNANOSYSTEMS.COM, SHUTTERSTOCK

See isn’t quite the right term for the way in  which you perceive Vantablack®, the  darkest thing in the universe after a black hole. It’s more like the opposite of seeing; the absence of vision. The almost total lack of light reflected from the Vantablack® surface prevents the eye from detecting any surface detail. An object coated in Vantablack® simply looks like a hole in space. It’s as if the fabric of time and space just opened up and left a gap.

 

Vantablack® absorbs an incredible 99.965% of visible light. British company Surrey NanoSystems, its inventor, describes it as a “forest” of millions upon millions of incredibly small tubes made of carbon, or carbon nanotubes. Each nanotube in the Vantablack® forest has a diameter of around 20 nanometres, about 3,500 times smaller than the diameter of the average human hair.

 

Surrey NanoSystems explains: “Light striking the Vantablack® surface enters the space between the nanotubes and is rapidly absorbed as it ‘bounces’ from tube to tube, and simply cannot escape as the tubes are so long in relation to their diameter and the space between them. The near total lack of reflectance creates an almost perfect black surface. To understand this effect, try to visualise walking through a forest in which the trees are around 3km tall instead of the usual 10–20m. It’s easy to imagine just how little light, if any, would reach you.”

 
“The near-total lack of
reflection creates an
almost-perfect black surface.”
– SURREY NANOSYSTEM
 
It’s not like black paint, pigment or fabric; it’s a ‘forest’ of millions upon millions of incredibly small tubes made of carbon, each with a diameter that’s 3,500 times smaller than the diameter of the average human hair.

 

New advances in black

 

An earlier version of this strange substance was launched about 3 years ago. That version is still the blackest black there is, but it’s difficult to work with. The original Vantablack® is actually “grown” in a specially designed chamber under powerful lamps that raise the surface temperature to 430°C or higher to allow the nanotube forest to grow. So it could only be applied to materials with a melting point of around 550°C or above.

 

More recently, Surrey NanoSystems developed a slightly less black version of the substance that can be applied to a wider range of materials. “[T]he new sprayable version opens up a range of applications,” says Ben Jensen of Surrey NanoSystems. “Vantablack® S-VIS is so effective that its performance far outstrips any other known paint or super-black coating. [It] is significantly less reflective than, for example, the super-black paint used for managing stray light in the Hubble Space Telescope.”

 

To showcase this breakthrough, Surrey NanoSystems put a 3D bust of BBC television presenter Marty Jopson in the Science Museum in London, and next to it the same bust covered in Vantablack® S-VIS. The effect is astonishing – it’s as if every feature of the sculpture disappears. In a company statement last year, Surrey NanoSystems suggests potential for the exciting applications beyond the realm of the scientific: “Its ability to deceive the eye also opens-up a range of design-possibilities …”

Two busts of British television presenter Marty Jopson have been placed next to each other in the Science Museum in London, one in bronze and one covered in Vantablack S-VIS,to illustrate the strange visual effects of the substance.

After the original versions of Vantablack®, which had to be grown in a vacuum chamber using a complex process called reduced temperature (500°C) chemical vapour deposition (CVD), Surrey Nanosystems, the company that invented Vantablack®, created a spray-applied version called Vantablack S-VIS, which is much more flexible than the original.

Vantablack® has hydrophobic properties, which means it has an ultra-low surface energy that makes it repel water. This property is so powerful that an aluminium disc coated in Vantablack® can actually float.

Vantablack for design

 

Vantablack® was first envisioned for telescopes and satellite-borne instrumentation, and NASA has been pursuing a similar substance for other applications in aerospace and military fields. Vantablack® opens up possibilities for high-performance infrared cameras, sensors and scientific instruments.

 

Its ability to absorb light energy and convert it to heat is also of relevance in solar power development. Other applications include functional surfaces in buildings and architecture, cinematographic projectors, and high-performance baffles and lenses.

 

There are certain practical considerations that limit the possibilities for design with Vantablack®, though. It can’t be in contact with skin, for example. And a Vantablack® car? While the company admits that it “would undoubtedly result in an amazing looking motor, unfortunately the limitations of Vantablack® in respect of direct impact or abrasion would make this an impractical proposition for most people”. Because Vantablack® absorbs light, it gets very hot, so it wouldn’t be very comfortable either.

 

While Vantablack can’t be used on cars, the BMW i8 is available in a limited Protonic Frozen Black Edition, which features a limited-edition ice-coloured matt black exterior paint finish and sporting interior style that makes it an absolute eye-catcher on any road. Find out more here.