Material Monday: Vantablack

Material Monday: Vantablack

Posted 7 March 2016 by Nirvana CPH

If you are in the habit of keeping up with goings on from the world of art and design, or simply a reader of our weekly round-up, you might have noticed that sculptor Anish Kapoor made headlines last week following his acquisition of the exclusive rights to use Vantablack, a material that claims, ominously, but quite legitimately, to be “the darkest on earth”.

Blog posts and comments boards have been ignited by questions surrounding the implications of Kapoor’s latest ‘purchase’; as Dezeen reminded us, it’s not since Yves Klein patented a deep shade of matt blue in 1960 that an artist has claimed sole ownership of a particular colour. (In Klein’s case, his particular hue went on to be known, officially, as International Klein Blue.) Kapoor’s detractors have expressed their disgust at what they see as his unfair monopoly on the material, though the artist himself has so far remained tight-lipped on the issue, choosing instead to focus his attention on Vantablack’s extraordinary properties. Any maybe he’s right: because while Kapoor’s acquisition of the exclusive usage rights undoubtedly raises wider questions about the ethics of ownership, it also threatens to divert attention from a material that forces us to pause and reassess everything we take for granted in our relationship with light.

Surrey NanoSystems, the company behind Vantablack, are unequivocal in their introduction to the jewel in their crown. “Vantablack is not a black paint, pigment or fabric,” they announce proudly on the FAQ section of their website. “[It] is instead a functionalised ‘forest’ of millions upon millions of incredibly small tubes made of carbon, or carbon nanotubes.” In this forest, nanotubes more than 3,000 times smaller than the diameter of the average human hair are packed side by side, rapidly absorbing light and bouncing it from one tube to the next; the tubes’ length (typically between 14 and 50 microns) in relation to their diameter, and their proximity to one another, make it impossible for light to escape and account for the unique environment of near-zero reflectivity. “To understand this effect,” Surrey NanoSystems suggest, “try to visualise walking through a forest in which the trees are around 3km tall instead of the usual 10 to 20 metres.”

The ‘greenhouse’ for this forest is a special Chemical Vapour Deposition chamber, housing a number of lamps that are capable of raising the surface temperature to upwards of 430 degrees Celsius to allow the carbon tubes to grow.

Traditionally, Vantablack has been used in high-performance photographic and scientific equipment that stands to benefit from its absorption of stray light. However, its disarming visual effects make it of huge interest to artists interested in exploring depths of colour, or lack thereof. By virtue of the fact that seeing is essentially the perceiving and processing of reflected light, there is an argument that the material cannot even be ‘seen’. Surfaces to which it is applied appear totally smooth, with an almost unreal quality, regardless of the texture of the underlying substrate. Little wonder, then, that Kapoor, whose sculptures invite the onlooker to approach and consider them from a multitude of different angles, is interested in its application in his own work.

More information on Vantablack (including the burning question, Can I apply Vantablack to my car?), the processes behind its manufacture and its potential uses, can be found on Surrey NanoSystems’ website.