Science

What is Vantablack?

When black just isn’t dark enough, you need Vantablack. Vantablack is the brand name for a new material that was recently released by British researchers and its darkness is unlike anything seen before. It’s been used in automotive technology, photography, watches, art, and various other objects. Sometimes it’s used just to show off. So, what is Vantablack and how does it work?

Vantablack

Wrinkled aluminium foil with a portion—equally wrinkled—coated in Vantablack
Credit: Surrey NanoSystems / CC BY-SA 3.0

The incredible substance was invented by British researchers at Surrey Nanosystems in 2014. What makes the material special is that it absorbs 99.965% of all visible light. Even under the brightest spotlight, anything coated with Vantablack looks like a shadow, regardless of contours, angles, or designs. Even shiny, wrinkled tinfoil turns to solid black when it's covered in the substance! Vantablack is officially the darkest material ever to exist.

It’s not a color

Explosion of colors
Credit: djero.adlibeshe yahoo.com/ Shutterstock

Yes, you can put it on a color swatch and cover objects in it, but Vantablack isn’t a color — it’s a material. It uses tiny tubes — each about the width of 20 nanometers — to absorb light from all angles. For those not familiar with nano measurements, 20 nanometers is about 3,500 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. These tubes are extremely small. Since it doesn’t use pigments, it can’t be classified as a color.

How does it work?

Vantablack is named after an acronym: Vertically Aligned Nano Tube Array. As the company name “Surrey Nanosystems” might imply, they specialize in nanotechnology. Unlike a paint that uses pigments to reflect colored light, Vantablack is a specialized coating that covers a substance in vertical nanotubes made of carbon. Light is reflected inside the nanotubes and bounces around until it’s completely absorbed — leaving nothing but a shadowy figure behind. One square centimeter of coated surface area contains about a billion light-dampening nanotubes.

Applications

Up close view of camera lens showing black glass and plastic pieces
Credit: denniro/ Shutterstock

While it might look cool on watches and cars, Vantablack has more scientific applications than aesthetic. Its most important application is in sensors, cameras, and telescopes. When it comes to building technology that utilizes light, the biggest challenge is controlling where the light goes. With Vantablack, you can be sure that the light won’t reflect where it’s not supposed to.

Science

Vantablack’s primary use is in cameras, sensors, and lenses to reduce glare and overexposure — even in the harshest of lighting conditions. Astronauts use Vantablack in their optical equipment since it is best at suppressing the massive amounts of light pollution from the unfiltered sun and reflected light from the earth and moon. Using Vantablack in telescopes allows researchers to see distant stars and galaxies more easily without all the pesky light interference.

Automotive technology

Interior view of car showing black steering wheel and buttons
Credit: BLKstudio/ Shutterstock

With all the self-driving and driver assistance technology now available in the automotive market, it’s important to have reliable sensors. Car manufacturers use Vantablack to reduce glare and light pollution that could interfere with a car’s ability to “see” obstacles in extreme lighting conditions. Vantablack can also be used in headlights as a trap to guide light so that it doesn’t interfere with other drivers’ ability to see the road.

Durability

Since it’s a coating material and not a paint, Vantablack requires a bit more care than standard painted objects. Touching Vantablack can damage the nanotubes and hinder its ability to absorb light. It should also stay away from dirt and dust, which can embed itself in the coating. Because of this, it’s not realistic to coat everyday objects in Vantablack — no matter how cool it looks.

While it might not be suitable for everyday wear and tear, Vantablack works great in protected, enclosed areas like equipment and sensors. It’s hydrophobic, so humidity won’t affect its light dampening properties. It is incredibly thermal shock resistant, which is great for space applications. In tests, researchers repeatedly moved a Vantablack-coated substance from liquid nitrogen (-320 degrees Fahrenheit) to a 400-degree hot plate without seeing any change in its properties. It’s also resistant to the shock and vibrations that would be experienced during a shuttle takeoff.