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Vantablack

Finally, all those silly season, slow-news-week fashion commentary pieces, about how this or that colour that isn’t black and never will be is now “the new black”, can cease. Vantablack is the new black.

This new black has been contrived by a bunch of nano-techies working for something called Surrey Nanosystems. The point about Vantablack is that it is really black. They claim that Vantablack absorbs all but 0.036% of the light that strikes it. Normally, if you shine a torch at a black surface, you can see the light from the torch registering on the supposedly black surface, in other words being reflected rather than absorbed. But Vantablack just gobbles up all the light and continues to look totally black. You’ll be double-checking your torch to see if it is working. This is a godsend for space telescopers, and for the makers of very high-end cameras of all kinds.

The original target for Vantablack was the suitably money-no-object space telescope business. Space telescopes need to minimise – really minimise – the number of light particles that bounce about inside them in the wrong places and blur the resulting images, and Vantablack absorbs light particles to a unique degree.

But Vantablack also has potential applications in art and in the world of luxury design, which is why I first heard about Vantablack at Dezeen, the design website that I frequent. And then, quite recently, I encountered mention of Vantablack at David Thompson’s blog, in one of his lists of internetted oddities, and then at Instapundit (who feared it might be an April Fool prank). I imagine it has been much the same for all internetters with any interest in such things, large numbers of whom will by now have heard of this remarkable, newly invented-stroke-discovered material-stroke-paint, which is blacker than the blackest black ever not-seen before. The Vantablack story combines hot button highest-technology issues, like nano-tech (which was how they did it) and space exploration, with a visual outcome which is very bizarre, but the basic nature of which can be understood by almost anybody. An ideal combination for virality.

In the event that you have somehow managed to miss this story, you can get some idea of how very black Vantablack is by pondering this image, of a mask, together with the same mask covered in the liquid version of Vantablack. The Vantablacked version of the mask might as well be a flat piece of cardboard for all the 3-D shape detail you are able to discern by looking at it. You’d need to be a bat to make sense of it:

That image is to be found at a British Museum posting entitled Vantablack is the new black. I googled that gag, confident that someone would already have used it as a heading, and so it proved.

Some idea of the sensation that Vantablack has been provoking may be gleaned from this page at their website, where it says this:

… Please note that we are unable to respond to private email addresses for the following requests:

– Coating a car, motorbike or bicycle

– Use of the coating in personal art

– Coating household objects, rooms or musical instruments

Our FAQs address these questions in detail.

It was in answer to the FAQ about just how dark Vantablack is that I got to that 0.036% number, see above.

Here is another page at the (excellent, I think) Surrey Nanosystems website (with its appropriately black background), at which they describe the kind of careers they are now offering, to the right candidates:

Internal Sales exc – Background in scientific or a technical subject, and at least 3 years commercial success in a B2B technical sales role.

Internal Applications Engineer – Background in aesthetic design – Vantablack design applications interface to external customers

This is the kind of story that just goes to show how right anyone who notices it has always been, all along, about everything.

If you are the kind that blames capitalism for causing poverty (instead of praising capitalism for getting rid of poverty, the way I do and you should) then perhaps you will say that Vantablack proves how frivolous capitalism is, making black even blacker when there is still so much misery in the world. If you believe that universities should get more government money (Vantablack emerged from the University of Surrey), well then, you’ll say that Vantablack proves that universities should get more government money. If you are an anti-Trumpist or an anti-Brexiteer, you will regard the Vantablack story as proof that we really are living in uniquely dark times. If you are the kind of commenter here whose reaction to any new-tech fuss we report is that it is a fuss about nothing, or perhaps if you are the sort who wants to make fun of such grumpiness, you will perhaps even now be contriving a comment that includes the words: nothing to see here.

Me? Well, yes, hurrah for capitalism, and all that. But what I really want to see is what other uses are found for this remarkable new trick, once the economies of scale kick in and it starts getting a bit cheaper.

In particular, I note the last sentence of the answer to the FAQ about what Vantablack is used for? Cameras, space telescopes, luxury trinkets. But then this:

… Its ability to absorb light energy and convert it to heat is also of relevance in solar power development.

“Of relevance” suggests to me that they may still be struggling with the details. But: just what I’d been thinking. If all that light energy doesn’t bounce back at you, it has to go somewhere else. Why not into a battery?

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42 comments to Vantablack

  • Thailover

    Now we know why they couldn’t see the batmobile when he turned off his lights and went into stealth mode. 😎

  • Mr Ed

    Well they can shine a light on it, but I can’t see what will come out of it.

  • Brian Swisher

    It’s, like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.

  • Mary Contrary

    Very cool stuff. Some qualifications from the FAQ though

    How robust is Vantablack?
    The nanostructured composition of Vantablack results in a material that is extremely resilient in some respects, yet highly susceptible in other ways. Vantablack has been successfully qualified for the very high levels of shock and vibration experienced in a rocket launch. The material is able to withstand these extremes as it comprises many billions of individual nanotubes, each one of which has almost no mass. However, also as a result of its structure, it is highly susceptible to any direct impact or abrasion.

    So, it’ll rub off really easily. That’ll exclude quite a lot of consumer applications – at least until they come up with a variant that won’t.

  • Darrell

    Sounds like it would be perfect for lining telescope tube interiors, in order to reduce/eliminate any stray light, which could reduce contrast. I daresay the cost would be prohibitive, though, at least for amateur astronomers.

  • Gene

    … you will perhaps even now be contriving a comment that includes the words: nothing to see here.

    Well played, sir, well played.

  • Laird

    Your final comment, about converting light into heat, is the first thing which occurred to me. If it’s not being reflected all that energy has to go somewhere, after all, and heat is the most likely outlet. That could lead to all sorts of interesting applications.

  • Sigivald

    Blacker than the blackest black, times infinity.

    Brutal.

  • Rob

    Don’t forget Goth clothing too.

  • bobby b

    “Don’t forget Goth clothing too.”

    Wouldn’t work. Most Goths I know are looking for a more visible black. Put them in Vanta, and they might as well stay home.

  • CaptDMO

    Yep. Thosr astonishingly expensive stereo systems that reproduced signal beyond the range of human hearing were the must have/must be seen with items of their day.
    For us “average” humans, affordable really “flat” black, approaching beyond human perception, can be had from flocking with black velour “fuzz”, on ANY surface that will take paint.
    You can do this in the garage.
    YES it will get scraped if you hit it with anything substantial, so don’t DO that!

  • Bobby B:

    That’s a feature, not a bug.

  • Mr Ed

    I have heard it said that black is a poor camouflage at night because very few things in nature are ‘true’ black, so black stands out in contrast to its surroundings, so a black object can be inferred if not seen, a bit like the ‘Invisible Man’ in the rain.

  • DP

    Dear Mr Micklethwaite

    This reminded me of something in a Gene Wolf novel – fuligin, a colour that is blacker than black – described in his 1980 book The Shadow of the Torturer.

    http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=1495

    This site references an earlier use in Gray Lensman (1939) by E E ‘Doc’ Smith, and a contemporaneous use in The Restaurant at the End of The Universe (1980) by Douglas Adams.

    Someone else has seen the lack of light:

    http://www.tor.com/2017/04/03/could-gene-wolfes-blacker-than-black-cloak-be-a-reality/

    DP

  • Mr Ed

    I wonder if a mist of this stuff would make an impenetrable, dark ‘fog’. Or would the heat generated evapourate the water? Perhaps the nano- or pico- particles would still float, light as air, yet seemingly denser and more opaque than any IRS manual?

    75 years ago, were it to have existed, could it have swallowed searchlights over the Ruhr?

    Could it be used now, to melt pesky ice caps, and turn Greenland ‘green’?

  • Mr Ed, I’ve heard that too. Something about ninjas wearing midnight blue?

  • Paul Marks

    Interesting.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    It’ll never work, and when it does it will just be used by the government to coat helicopters and control us. I can’t believe this site is supporting it! 😈

  • AndrewZ

    “Of relevance” means “give us some money and we’ll try and figure it out for you”.

  • bobby b

    “It’ll never work, and when it does it will just be used by the government to coat helicopters and control us.”

    The joke would be on those poor government pilots, wandering about the airfield trying to find their helicopters.

  • Roué le Jour

    If you stare into it long enough does it stare back?

  • Bruce

    There is a catch with “black” on camouflage uniforms.

    The “‘black” bits absorb all the visible light (almost). However, all that energy has not “disappeared. some of it is re-radiated in the infra-red band.

    This of course means that anyone wearing “black” or with mottled black patches, will light up like a Christmas tree in an infra-red scope / viewer. Body heat will just add to this phenomena.

    That is why the US (and others) ditched the old “chocolate-chip” camouflage uniforms and went with “shades of grey” and green and brown, often in small patches: See “Multi-cam”, and “black” rifles, webbing, boots, etc.

  • Roué le Jour

    As an apprentice assasin, Vetinari wore dark green at night.

    Pratchett’s research was exhaustive.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    I suppose the next project will be for a ‘perfect’ White. Saw an old British comedy called ‘The man in the white suit’, about a chemist who invents a white substance that repels dirt. What a shame that neither the bosses nor the unions want suits that don’t need washing nor repairing, thus destroying lots of jobs like laundry services, etc. It even glowed in the dark!

  • […] Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait attempts to look at the newly announced blackest black ever, […]

  • Alisa

    Oh come on Rob, don’t be a sore loser 😀

  • The racism in this thread astounds me. 😈

  • Hotblack Desiato

    I want me some of that stuff.

  • Watchman

    I’m sure this would be useful for horror movie directors…

    And with that valuable observation, I shall return to what I was doing before.

  • Greg

    25 years ago in grad school, we used “Aquadag” to coat the insides of electron spectrometers (photoelectron time-of-flight spectrometers for those who care). It was graphite in a spray can. Allegedly a product of the Apollo program. Was really black, but it was also conductive (which is what we wanted, keep the surface which gets slowly coated with organic film from charging up). And it was great unless you rubbed it (rubbed off very easily). I don’t recall surfaces painted with Aquadag disappearing into 2D surfaces, so it appears that Vantablack may be quite a step forward in this regard (10X less light reflected or some such).

    Another blast from the past: in my silicon wafer etching days, we sometimes got bad results, “black Si”. Instead of an area of the wafer being nicely etched away, there was a residue left, un-etched little spires of Si that were very small (few nanometers at the tip) and very closely spaced (few 100 nanometers apart) such that a surface covered in these made a great light absorber. But if you simply ran your finger across the surface, it was shiny, metallic Si again because you’d just knocked down the forest of “black Si” spires. Not sure what this stuff did to 3D surface appearance since we only made it on 2D (very 2D as in atomically flat) surfaces.

  • Alisa

    The racism in this thread astounds me.

    Me too. Plus, I demand to know whether those government helicopters are using hangars dedicated to their specific gender.

  • AKM

    Hotblack Desiato* would approve.

    *The front man for the fictional band ‘Disaster Area’ not the estate agency in Islington.

  • Cheers AKM! I had previously manually ‘smited’ a comment to that effect as I did not get the reference (which can now be seen above rescued from spam)

  • Laird

    Perry, I’m astounded that you didn’t get the reference! But what I want to know is if there really is an estate agency of that name in Islington. If so, Adams’ literary estate should sue!

  • Mr Ed

    Laird,

    You have it backwards, but are not the first, on Hotblack Desiato. Douglas Adams, when writing the series, was stuck on a name for his rock star. Going around Islington one day, he saw the eponymous estate agency, and, per an interview I read, he was dumbstruck at finding a perfect match; he sought and got permission to use the name.

    The firm does reportedly get regular complaints from fans about ‘stealing’ the name.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Alisa, you can’t just go up to a helicopter and ask, “How’s it hangin’?” You just have to hope that the right type of hangar is available, and nobody gets their tailrotors in a spin.

  • Laird

    Mr Ed, I stand corrected. Thank you for that tidbit.

  • Now, if we could only paint some politicians with a VantaLibertarian coating…

  • Mr Ed

    Laird,

    You may be proved right in the end, in the book there is reference to a copyright lawsuit where the plagariser used a time machine to send his work back in time to before the original was created, and then counter-sued and won.

    I suspect that Mr Adams had American lawyers in mind…

  • Manniac

    If you want to know why Vanatablack was developed, google Ted Molczan…