Artists and scientists alike have been fascinated by the interplay of light and the human brain since the time of the ancient Greeks. This area of inquiry occasionally leads to a search for light’s absence, methods and materials that confuse the eye by giving it, well, nothing. Ad Reinhardt attempted it with Abstract Painting, a 1963 work made with null brushstrokes. It’s eerie to look at a painting with no brushstrokes, but there’s still something there. More recently, artist and scientist Frederick de Wilde talked with The Creators Project about his all-absorbing, nano particle-based lab creation called “the blackest black in the world.” His innovation is a black so dark it reduces 3D images into two dimensional planes and has the potential to absorb all sunlight without bouncing it back, meaning this color could become a renewable energy incubator. However, it turns out that his highly scientific process may not have created the ultimate shade of darkness.
Last week, UK nanotech company Surrey Nanosystems released an announcement that they’d created a material with what’s “believed to be the highest ever recorded” light absorption rate in the world. The material is called Vantablack, and it absorbs 99.96% of the light that hits it. The visual effect resembles the ACME portable holes that Wile E. Coyote never got the hang of — e.g., no matter what’s underneath Vantablack, it looks flat and completely empty. In the picture above, the aluminum foil coated in Vantablack is wrinkled and has texture, but it’s impossible to tell by looking at just the covered area, since no light bounces off the material. It might not look perfectly black through a computer screen, but its supernatural flatness is more than evident.
In the above TED Talk, de Wilde explains the concept of achieving blacker-than-black using carbon nanotubes. Surrey Nanosystems uses similar substances, but claims that the material they’ve created is even blacker than de Wilde’s, and doesn’t have some of the drawbacks of other super-black materials. Vantablack can be produced at lower temperatures than its competition, and it sticks to things better. As a result, Surrey Nanotech could feasibly put more Vantablack in more places. For example, telescopes searching for the oldest sections of the universe can be calibrated using the substance, sensors can be made more sensitive and solar panels can absorb more energy from the sun.
The Independent asked Ben Jensen, the firm’s chief technical officer, about the prospect of creating a ‘little black dress’ with Vantablack, but he told them that it would be incredibly expensive, and the effect probably wouldn’t be the sexy statement of a traditional black dress. “You would lose all features of the dress,” he said. “It would just be something black passing through.”
Though it’s not confirmed if Vantablack actually ousts de Wilde’s nano-tech creation in darkness, the competition for the world’s blackest black is unofficially in full swing. We don’t know what a color that absorbs 100% of light would do to reality, and we’re not sure we want to find out. Pretty soon, though, scientists and artists alike may reach the answer.