Orange isn’t the new black, it’s this strange material developed by British tech company Surrey Nanosystems. It sets a new world record for reflecting the least amount of light of any material ever tested. Less than 0.04 percent of the light that hits this material—dubbed “Vantablack”—reflects off the surface, giving it an almost black hole-like appearance.
To make something the blackest black, you have to change the actual structure of the surface. Vantablack (“Vertically Aligned Carbon Nanotube Arrays”) is made from millions of carbon nanotubes, each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, grown on aluminum sheets. The researchers tried growing the material in different orientations, but it all looks unsettlingly the same because the lack of reflected light doesn’t let our brains see the contours.
The nanotubes are packed so tightly together in Vantablack that entering light gets lost inside the miniscule gaps between them, and cannot pass through the tubes themselves. Pack the nanotubes tightly like a bundle of drinking straws and photons can come in but they don’t come out.
Surrey Nanosystems says in a press release that the first orders for Vantablack have already been made, focusing on the military and space exploration sectors. It would be a huge advantage to telescopes and astronomical cameras, which need absolutely black calibration surfaces with which to compare faint starlight. “[Vantablack] reduces stray-light, improving the ability of sensitive telescopes to see the faintest stars, and allows the use of smaller, lighter sources in space-borne black body calibration systems,” says Chief Technology Officer Ben Jensen.
Maybe the coolest part of this innovation is that nature beat them to it. The Gaboon pit viper—a venomous native to the forests and deserts of Africa—is the heaviest viper, has the largest fangs of any snake, and can impart more venom in a single bite than any other snake. It’s also an absolute master of camouflage. Recent research has found that nanoridges on the black scales of the viper produce the same effect as Vantablack. The snake’s scales aren’t as effective as the new material, reflecting less than 11 percent of the incoming light, but it’s amazing that evolution stumbled onto the same innovation.
In each case, messing with light on scales less than a billionth of a meter makes for a whole new kind of color, something almost unnatural. “These new materials, they are pretty much as black as we can get, almost as close to a black hole as we could imagine,” said Stephen Westland, professor of color science and technology at Leeds University, speaking with The Independent.