The idea that colors come in different shades isn’t particularly strange. You’ll know that there are strawberry, crimson and scarlet varieties of red, for instance, or that blue may be navy, royal or aqua. When you think about black, though, you’re probably picturing just one deep color. But, surprisingly, there are actually shades of black. And deep beneath the ocean, scientists may just have found one of the darkest kinds ever seen.
Of course, some argue that black isn’t actually a color at all. That’s because the shades we see in nature are all created by varying wavelengths of visible light reflecting off an object. Black, on the other hand, is what is perceived when very little light is reflected, making it an absence of color of sorts.
So, taking this into account, how can you tell if one black is darker than another? Well, it’s all to do with how much light is swallowed up by the object or material, with the darkest blacks being the most absorbent. And scientists and engineers have long been trying to pioneer new, even deeper shades. They’ve had some success, too, in creating materials that absorb over 99 percent of the light hitting them.
But one of the blackest substances on Earth wasn’t found in a lab but hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface. That’s right: when researchers from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. were studying the depths of the Gulf of Mexico and California’s Monterey Bay, they noticed something truly incredible.
And that discovery could be crucial, too. Finding new shades of black in nature may help scientists improve the colors currently being developed in the lab, and this in turn will have all kinds of implications in the real world. Yes, the hunt for the ultimate black isn’t just about the challenge of outdoing previous researchers.
Creating the perfect kind of black could be very useful in space exploration, for instance – not least because of its exceptional light-blocking capabilities. A super-dark black could also be used for camouflage purposes, which may prove important in war.
After all, there are plenty of animals in nature that use black to help conceal themselves from predators or sneak up on prey. Producing materials in a similar shade, then, may help humans follow suit. Deeper varieties of black could be used on military stealth jets, for example.
Another area where darkness is essential is in studying the stars, which requires a clear and uninterrupted view of distant space. And if scientists want to obstruct unwelcome light sources so they can look directly at one specific celestial body, then one possible method is to protect their telescopes with the blackest possible shielding.
But not all potential uses for the darkest black are quite as practically driven. Sometimes, the color is just used to make things look cool. And depending on your opinion, the ultra-black X6 model that BMW unveiled in 2019 could be the coolest car on the planet because of its stunning paint job.
The BMW developers didn’t actually spray the vehicle with the blackest shade available, though, as otherwise it would be harder to tell that it’s actually a three-dimensional object. Even so, the visible windows, headlights and grille create a fascinating contrast.
That BMW was coated with a formula called VBx2, but the even darker option would have been a substance known as Vantablack. This shade was developed as part of a U.K.-based program to improve space-related technologies in conjunction with the National Physics Laboratory and EnerSys’ ABSL Space Products department.
Vantablack was eventually produced in 2014 by a company called Surrey NanoSystems, and it absorbs an amazing 99.96 percent of the solar energy that hits it. That means only 0.04 percent of light is reflected, which at the time made Vantablack the darkest substance known to man. And, altogether, it’s an almost ideal material for spacecraft.
As you may imagine, building shuttles and rockets is an immensely complicated process. And as the carbon structures used in many ultra-black materials usually need to be created using high temperatures, they could in turn cause damage to electronic equipment or to substances that melt easily. Vantablack was designed, however, to counter some of these problems.
Luckily, Vantablack is created on aluminum rather than the traditional silicon. Gases collect on the aluminum and become solid carbon through a process called photothermal chemical vapor deposition. Then the carbon forms tiny, hollow cylinders known as nanotubes, and these are what makes up Vantablack.
And while these carbon nanotubes are tiny, they’re strong, durable and excellent thermal conductors. Vantablack is the best thermal conductor in its field, in fact, and it also possesses a low mass. All in all, Vantablack is a major development in nanotechnology that could have huge implications for air and space travel.
Carbon nanotubes could have potential military uses – in coatings for stealth jets, for example, or in advanced sensors. Even something like measuring the temperature of the Earth could become ten times more accurate with devices made from or coated in carbon nanotubes.
But there’s another intriguing aspect to the Vantablack story, and it comes from the art world. Back in 2016 Anish Kapoor purchased exclusive rights to use a specially adapted type of Vantablack spray paint in his work; his fellow artist Stuart Semple thought, however, that this was unfair. And this marked the beginning of a remarkable feud between the two men.
You see, Semple responded to Kapoor’s monopoly by developing his own color that he called “the World’s Pinkest Pink.” And this shade was made available to everyone but Kapoor. Purchasers even had to sign a disclaimer reading, “You confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor [and] you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor.”
Yet Kapoor still managed to get his hands on the World’s Pinkest Pink, so Semple decided to create something that would be an even greater contrast to Vantablack. He produced Diamond Dust – a kind of glitter made of glass shards that, conversely, reflected a lot of light.
Then things heated up again when Semple started to develop his own deep hue for the rest of the world to use. Black 2.0 was easier to make and more affordable than Vantablack, and it would be followed up by Black 3.0 – an even darker variant than its predecessor.
But developing new black pigments for art is definitely less tricky than for space travel. Not requiring high temperatures and a vacuum chamber during the creation process helps, although the paints that are produced can’t be as toxic to people as the original Vantablack.
And Semple isn’t the only person who has tried to stop Vantablack from dominating the market. Researchers at NanoLab, Inc. in Massachusetts developed a competitor, Singularity Black, using carbon nanotubes, although it’s a tiny bit more reflective than its counterpart. Singularity Black has even been used by NASA – even if it does have dangers of its own when being handled.
Yes, Singularity Black is toxic, and it only really works on ceramics and metal – making it of only limited use when creating art. You also need a spray booth or fume hood to coat anything in the substance, and it reaches dangerous temperatures of nearly 600 °F during this process.
However, one artist called Jason Chase did find a way to use Singularity Black in one of his pieces. He coated a large metal gummy bear with the material before placing the object on rainbow-painted wood to create a striking contrast. Still, not many are likely to follow in Chase’s lead – especially as Singularity Black costs $30 for just a 20ml sample.
But while we now know that humans are continuing to challenge how dark black can be in the laboratory, what about the shades that already exist in nature? Well, let’s move away from the telescopes and spaceships and take a look at the animal world. After all, it seems that the newest twist in the search for the darkest black comes from the unlikely realm of marine biology.
And anyone who has ever watched a nature show about the deepest parts of the ocean probably knows that there are some pretty strange creatures living down there. Once you get far enough down, in fact, sunlight can’t reach you. This means many fish have developed their own bioluminescence – or glow – to help lure potential prey.
But when a zoologist from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History called Karen Osborn was researching some of these strange deep-sea animals, she realized that they weren’t all showing up in photographs. All she could see, oddly enough, was a vague silhouette. Then, after she caught some of the fish and examined them more closely, Osborn realized something extraordinary.
These fish, it appeared, were the virtual opposite of bioluminescent, as they were trying to hide rather than spot or attract prey. To do so, then, they had evolved the blackest of black exteriors, with less than 0.5 percent of light reflecting off their scales. And we’re not just talking about one fish, either, but 16 separate species that all appear to have developed in a similar way.
The fish with this very special ability come with some appropriately dramatic names. There’s the common fangtooth, or Anoplogaster cornuta, which is only seven inches long and has particularly pointy teeth to help it hunt. And it doesn’t sit and wait like many predators but instead pursues potential prey, which it traces by smell.
Another fish boasting special camouflage abilities is the Pacific blackdragon, or Idiacanthus antrostomus. The Pacific blackdragon has a long, skinny dark body resembling that of an eel, and it possesses a globe of light hanging from its chin that lures prey right towards the creature’s toothy jaws.
And the common fangtooth and Pacific blackdragon share a few similarities – including, of course, a home that is thousands of feet deep in the ocean. The other thing the researchers found is that members of the two species both possess melanin that forms a thin but densely packed coating just below the surface of the skin.
Melanin is the pigment that helps determine skin color in humans and many other creatures, with higher levels of the substance producing darker skin. It’s why panthers appear black rather than yellowy with spots like regular leopards. Albino animals, on the other hand, have almost no melanin at all.
And Osborn’s study showed that some deep-sea fish have such tightly packed melanin that it absorbs most of the light that hits the skin. The melanin is structured in what are known as melanosomes, and these organelles are so close together that if light can’t be absorbed by one, then it is redirected into another.
This particular arrangement of melanin cells is what sets these particular fish apart from sea creatures that are a normal shade of black. Other animals instead have divisions between their melanosomes where light can be reflected as normal. But just how black are these fish, really?
Well, the researchers were able to measure the amount of light reflected by the marine dwellers. And, incredibly, the darkest creatures had a 99.95 percent absorbency – just a whisker off Vantablack. Nine species of the fish also had their skins examined through electron microscopy.
A recent study into black butterflies also used powerful electron microscopes to examine what made their wings so dark. And the experts involved in the research ultimately discovered that the insects’ wings were made of arrangements reminiscent of honeycomb that are situated between ridges. These ridges were also found to bulkier and lower than those found on lighter-hued butterflies.
And while these wings aren’t as dark as Vantablack – they absorb a mere 99.94 percent of light – they could inspire some improvements to Vantablack’s complex production process. Butterfly scales don’t need such high temperatures in their creation, after all, and they can be even thinner than a coating of carbon nanotubes.
Another animal that absorbs an incredible amount of light through its dark-colored feathers is the Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise. The avian’s plumage reflects only 0.05 percent of light, which puts it right alongside the blackest man-made materials. And, again, this is all down to the clever nanostructures that make up the feathers.
What’s more, when scientists looked closely at the species, they found that its plumage absorbed light in a similar way to man-made solar panels. And the blackness of the feathers stands in stark contrast to the bird’s patch of blue-green, which appears even more brilliant as a result.
So, these different species and their varying – but very dark – shades could all provide lessons to humans in our quest for ever-deeper blacks. And combining their incredible biological features with the scientific methods used to produce Vantablack could well have all kinds of useful applications for mankind.