The Story of the Blackest Color Ever Made

Here we look at the nature of color transmission and absorption. Why is this important for new product design and development? Understanding how light interacts with a surface will help you to fine tune your product’s look to achieve exactly the effect you want. And to illustrate this we’ll look at the blackest color ever made, Vantablack.

A hexagonall sample of Vantablack

Vantablack in the laboratory

What is color?

There are a couple of competing theories about exactly what color is. From a physics point of view color is what comes from a beam of visible light, split up into different wavelengths. Put all those wavelengths together at one time and you get white. Split them into discrete bundles and you get all the colors of the rainbow. In this case, black is the absence of light and hence not a color.

If you think of color as a pigment or molecular additive, like artists do, white becomes the absence of pigment and black is all the colors put together.

In all the cases when we see a color, we are depending on light to reflect off a surface and back to our eyes where we then interpret it as one of the known colors. (Ten million or more possible visible wavelengths.) But what if nothing comes back?

Absorbing light

First, a little history. Back in the 90’s, NASA and other organizations trying to peer into the depths of space needed to find a way to block out all incidental or reflected light so that sensitive telescopes and other instruments could get a clearer view of the night sky.

Image of carbon nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes trap light

They eventually settled on the use of carbon nanotubes, which are atomically small structures of pure carbon that could withstand the rigors of space travel while absorbing light. Now, a company in England called Surrey Nanosystems

has improved the process to create a more user-friendly coating they call Vantablack, which is an acronym that stands for “Vertically Aligned Nanotube Array.”

Basically, tiny filaments of carbon nanotubes stick up from the surface of a substrate. Their dense arrangement ensures that any beams of light that strike the surface get bounced around between tubes, eventually being absorbed in the form of heat. Light goes in but it doesn’t come out. None of it.

Picture of profile painted with Vantablack

Painted profile appears to lack any dimension

The effect of staring at a swatch of Vantablack is said to be like staring into the void – a void utterly without depth, dimension, or form of any kind.

A new realm of design possibilities

Vantablack was originally licensed to the artist Sir Anish Kapoor, but other architects and artists successfully fought for the right to use Vantablack in their own work.

Picture of Asif Khan and his vantablack scultpure

Architect Asif Khan

One example of this will be displayed at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. When visitors enter the games they will be confronted with a cube coated in a sprayable form of Vantablack known as VB x2. The architect Asif Khan intends to create a total void without apparent dimension, like the depths of empty space, dotted with thousands of tiny LED lights to suggest a starry sky against the white snow-capped mountains.

This is an example of an artistic use for the blackest of black colors, but it’s also being employed for other scientific instruments because it’s so good at absorbing all kinds of stray energy, not just visible light.

Can you use it in your next prototyping or low-volume manufacturing project? Well, true Vantablack is a highly engineered substance which is vacuum-deposited under very controlled conditions. But the sprayable form is, according to Surrey Nanosystems, being used in aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, luxury items, architecture and scientific instruments. Can you find a new way to use it? The possibilities are up to you, but when you’re ready to get started we’re ready to help with a free quote and project review.

Share this post

Ready To Start Your Next Project?

Request a Quote