As It Happens

Artist collaborates with MIT engineers to create the 'blackest black' material ever

Step aside, Vantablack. Engineers and an artist-in-residence at MIT have created a brand-new black that's so black it absorbs nearly 100 per cent of visible light.

MIT professor Brian Wardle says the new black absorbs 99.995% of visible light

The before and after of artist Diemut Strebe's The Redemption of Vanity, which uses the blackest material ever recorded to coat a $2-million diamond in complete darkness. (Submitted by Diemut Strebe)
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Once there was a black blacker than the blackest black. It was called Vantablack — a substance that absorbs 99.96 per cent of visible light.

But lo and behold, Vantablack has been dethroned by an even darker darkness. 

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they just discovered a new black that sucks up 99.995 per cent of visible light. And they credit much of that discovery to MIT artist-in-residence Diemut Strebe.

The new material is currently on display in a piece of art called The Redemption of Vanity, which coats a $2-million US diamond in the all-consuming blackness.

The artwork is a collaboration between Strebe and Brian Wardle, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Wardle about the piece and what makes the new black so black. Here is part of their conversation.

How did you discover that you had actually developed the blackest black we've ever seen?

The reason we even thought to look was artist-in-residence Diemut Strebe.

She's very interested in ultra-black materials and because those involve optical properties, which we don't usually think about, when we grew the new nanotubes, we said, "Wow. They look darker than the usual black stuff that we've been growing for like a decade."

We measured it and that was a terribly useful thing to have done.

Really, the art really pushed the science in a different direction, which I think is an interesting and unexpected result.

 

What you're describing, the material, is carbon nanotubes. So what are they and what do they look like?

These are hollow crystal and carbon tubes.

[They're] maybe 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a hair on your head. There's maybe 50 billion fibres per square centimetre.

With this sort of class of materials, it's actually natural processes that create them. But in the way we did it, and the way most people do it, is very organic terminology.

We grow them from a catalyst nanoparticle seed, super saturated with gaseous carbon, and then that starts to extrude a carbon hollow tube very quickly.

And when you get lots of catalyst particles working next to each other, and you get 50 billion per square centimetre, you can grow grass or, if you get the recipe right, you can grow a forest of these nanotubes.

The Redemption of Vanity is currently on display under glass at the New York Stock Exchange. (Submitted by Diemut Strebe)

When you say you worked with MIT's artist-in-residence to take a look at this blackest of blacks, what did you do to actually see how it worked — to see its effect in light?

We synthesize the carbon nanotube using CVD [chemical vapour deposition]. So we did that on the surface of a donated $2-million diamond.

Why a diamond?

A diamond is interesting because it's also carbon. But most diamonds that we think about allow light through them. But the carbon nanotubes do the opposite.

And you know, that dichotomy, I guess, is one of the things that Diemut talks about in her art.

She wanted to do it because in art there's a concept called over painting where you maybe devalue something valuable.

But when you do that, perhaps actually you increase its value. So it's a bit of a challenge to the art community and that was part of the reason why we debuted the art piece at the New York Stock Exchange.

Professor Brian Wardle says the black material absorbs up to 99.995 per cent of visible light. (Submitted by Brian Wardle)

Now, what you have done is created the blackest black. We've covered the story of Vantablack, which absorbs 99.96 per cent of visible light, and now you have found a way to suck up 99.995 per cent of visible light. How much difference does that really make?

To a human, I'm not sure. I haven't compared the two objects side by side. 

The one aspect that we measured that a lot of folks don't speaks to omnidirectional blackness.

Light on real objects comes from all directions and our measurement, when we measured as a function of angle on the blackness, didn't degrade.

I think that was one of the reasons why, when we just visually observed it ourselves, we're like wow, that's really a lot darker than the normal really black stuff that we've been handling for a decade.

What are practical applications you can have with this blackest of black?

It's generated a lot of interest from the optics and the laser communities. As well, part of that community is [using] observational telescopes or radio telescope for looking for exoplanets.

But in any of these applications where you have stray light bouncing around, that is noise to the signal that you'd actually like to observe. Any light coming into your detector that's not from the exoplanet is noise.

So having a material that absorbs more and more and more light, there's been a lot of interest in that.

Do you think it's possible to capture 100 per cent of all light?

This was basically just a discovery and observation we made because we were working with the artist. 

We decided to measure it. It was blacker than anything reported. I think the blackest black should be an evolving number or an evolving material. I think others will find blacker blacks as time goes on.

Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and John McGill. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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