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The blackest material in the entire world is very weird to look at

Imagine something so black that you can’t really see at all. So black that it looks like a hole. Surrey Nanosystems, from Britain, have produced a new material that sets a new world record for blackness.

The material, called Vantablack and developed over two years, absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light.

Here’s how the UK’s Independent described looking at the alien material:

To stare at the “super black” coating made of carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – is an odd experience. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.

Carbon nanotubes look like this:

An example of Carbon Nanotubes

An example of Carbon Nanotubes

Vantablack was grown on sheets of aluminium foil by the company. Oddly, while the sheets appear to be crumpled with ridges and lines, it’s impossible to tell physical features with the areas that are covered by the material.

“You expect to see the hills and all you can see… it’s like black, like a hole, like there’s nothing there. It just looks so strange,” said Ben Jensen, the firm’s chief technical officer.

As for practical uses, the company says it “withstands launch shock, staging and long-term vibration, and is suitable for coating internal components, such as apertures, baffles, cold shields and Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) –type optical sensors”.

This means it can be used to calibrate cameras take photographs of the oldest objects in the universe. This has to be done by pointing the camera at something as black as possible. Military uses will inevitably be found, perhaps for coating stealth planes, helicopters, and even ships, although internally at first.

Clothing, such as a black dress, would be almost impossible to comprehend – limbs would appear to float. And while the cost hasn’t yet been revealed, it’s expected to be a bit too much to coat your car or spaceship.

Douglas Adams predicted this in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy):

“That,” he said, “that… is really bad for the eyes.” It was a ship of classic, simple design, like a flattened salmon, twenty yards long, very clean, very sleek. There was just one remarkable thing about it.

“It’s so… black!” said Ford Prefect. “You can hardly make out its shape… light just seems to fall into it!”

The blackness of it was so extreme that it was almost impossible to tell how close you were standing to it.

“Your eyes just slide off it…” said Ford in wonder.

“It’s the wild colour scheme that freaks me,” said Zaphod whose love affair with this ship had lasted almost three minutes into the flight, “Every time you try to operate on of these weird black controls that are labelled in black on a black background, a little black light lights up black to let you know you’ve done it. What is this? Some kind of galactic hyperhearse?

You’ll probably notice how dirty your screen is while looking at the blackness. And no, this isn’t the same black as the stuff you left in the oven that one time.

About the author

Tristan has a passion for tech, digital life, sport, and being told he looks better in person.

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