UK nanotechnology company, Surrey NanoSystems, has created what they say is the darkest material known to man. Vantablack consists of a dense forest of carbon nanotubes—single atom carbon tubes 10,000 times thinner than a human hair—that drinks in 99.96% of all incoming radiation.
First announced last year, the material is a deep, featureless black even when folded and scrunched. “You expect to see the hills and all you can see…it’s like black, like a hole, like there’s nothing there. It just looks so strange,” Ben Jensen, the firm’s chief technical officer, told the Independent.
A number of other groups have been working to make super-black materials from carbon nanotubes in recent years. A prime application for the material is in sensitive optical equipment, like telescopes. A NASA Goddard team, led by John Hagopian, has been developing nanotube materials since 2007.
To make their own super-black material, Hagopian’s group lays down a catalyst layer of iron oxide and then, in an 1,832 degree-Fahrenheit (750 C) oven, they bathe the surface in carbon-enriched gas. The resulting multi-walled carbon nanotubes—nanotubes layered inside one another like Russian nesting dolls—can be grown on titanium, copper, and stainless steel.
NASA hopes to replace the black paint currently used in telescopes to minimize contamination by stray light (up to 40% of incoming light is unusable). Super-black materials ten times darker than the black paint may improve observations of distant galaxies or exoplanets orbiting stars in our own galaxy.
“You could get a better observational efficiency,” Hagopian said last year. “You’re not throwing away 40% of your data.”
What makes Vantablack special? Like NASA’s material, Vantablack can be deposited on three-dimensional surfaces, but it’s blacker than NASA’s super-black. Also, Surrey NanoSystems says they make Vantablack at low temperatures. Hot processes, like Hagopian’s, prevent layering on base materials with low melting points. Vantablack can be deposited on a wider selection of materials.
Further, for use in sensitive optics, especially in space, the material needs to dependably adhere to surfaces. Vantablack degrades very little and can withstand the rigors of launch and other vibrations, thereby reducing the risk of instrument contamination.
There’s no word on cost of the material, however, Surrey NanoSystems is already moving into commercial development. “We are now scaling up production to meet the requirements of our first customers in the defense and space sectors, and have already delivered our first orders,” said Jensen.