In 2014, a British nanotech company called Surrey NanoSystems manufactured the darkest material on the planet. It’s so dark it can transform the way we see any object coated in it. It’s called Vantablack.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a shade of paint. Vantablack is a substance made up of billions of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes that absorb 99.96% of all visible light. It can take days to cover even a small object in this highly complex compound. Imagine a crumpled-up piece of aluminium foil, coated in Vantablack. To the naked eye, the bumps and wrinkles disappear. The foil appears perfectly flat. Vantablack’s capacity to absorb light results in a loss in depth of perception and, ultimately, a distorted version of reality.
Vantablack was initially developed for astrophysical and engineering purposes. For example, it can be used to improve the accuracy of telescopes, because its extreme darkness reduces the possibility of distortion caused by stray light. This ability to reduce interference from light reflections means it can also be used in other technologies, such as in the construction of solar panels, or sensors on self-driving cars.
While Vantablack has demonstrated its usability in an engineering context, its appeal has also attracted a much wider audience, particularly in the art and design world. For example, BMW recently collaborated with Surrey NanoSystems to develop a sprayable version of Vantablack and launched a concept vehicle that claims to be the world’s blackest car. Luxury watchmakers have also climbed on board, featuring product lines with Vantablack faces (for just $69,000 the limited-edition Endeavour Tourbillion by H. Moser & Cie. could be yours). More recent headlines have lauded the possibilities in the film industry, where it’s been suggested that Vantablack tiles could eventually replace green screens.
So alluring was Vantablack for its artistic value, in 2016 the British Indian artist Anish Kapoor purchased the exclusive rights to use it in his artistic works. This move was met with fierce controversy in the art world, with people seeing such a monopoly as distasteful and unethical. Others were quick to point out that this had been done before, by Yves Klein back in the 1960s, who famously ‘owned’ the vivid shade of blue we know as ‘Klein Blue’. The artist Stuart Semple took particular offence to Anish Kapoor’s ownership of Vantablack and responded by developing ‘Black 3.0’. He wasn’t the only one to try and knock Vantablack off the top spot. In 2019, MIT engineers claimed to have developed a new substance based on the same technology that absorbed even more light than Vantablack. 99.995% to be precise.
Despite its various competitors over the years, Vantablack continues to reign supreme as the most talked-about black, fascinating and inspiring engineers and creatives all over the world. As a man-made substance that has the ability to change the way we see things, it holds a powerful emotional quality. It’s the closest thing we can get, visually speaking, to a black hole. Vantablack literally makes things disappear. And what could be more magical than that?