Disruptive by Design: The Blackest Black? Can You See It Now?

January 1, 2020
By Jennifer Miller

Like me, you may have thought black is black and as dark as it gets. However, courtesy of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), individuals are creating blacker and blacker, even blackest versions of black. A quick Google or YouTube search yields all sorts of interesting results from BMWs painted in Vantablack, to the “blackest little black dress.”

In practice, CNTs are materials that can be vertically aligned to capture light in the 99.9XX percent range and produce blacker versions of the blackest black. CNTs are microscopic filaments of carbon that can be grown on surfaces for various uses.

The blackest black is gaining popularity for purposes both positive and questionable. For instance, scientists are breaking new ground with growing and trying new structural patterns of CNTs. Potential uses include reducing glare with cameras and telescopes and more efficient solar panel cells. Some theorize CNTs could create a black hole of sorts, absorbing light and effectively covering objects from sight. The aerospace and defense sectors have sought the material for heat absorption purposes. It is no coincidence that Vantablack, created by Surrey NanoSystems, was first unveiled at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2014.

Even artists are getting creative with blacker-than-black exhibits. Blackest black was back in the news recently with the unveiling of a $2 million diamond coated in the material. The exhibit is the creation of Diemut Strebe, an artist in residence at MIT.

Alternatively, people might be able hide objects and facilitate theft in a perceivable black void. Will we see an uptick in theft because of these materials?

If CNT blackest black was not enough, there is also a non-nanotube coating making waves—but not light waves! This material is applied to objects like a paint. The effect is essentially the same as CNT blackest black, as the material absorbs, rather than reflects, light in the 99.9XX percent range.

This non-nanotube blackest black goes on like a spray paint for domestic and industrial uses, including those mentioned above. I believe the defense sector may already have or may develop use for this paint-like variety when coating aircraft for maximum stealth of rescue or attack aircraft. One excellent candidate could be the B-2 stealth bomber given the namesake and attributes as a penetrator of dense anti-aircraft defenses.

Perhaps land vehicles and sea vessels could use the paint-like substance for defense and for offensive advantages too. Finally, weapons could leverage the cloaking material—the GBU-53/B StormBreaker, formerly known as the Small Diameter Bomb II, comes to mind.

The competition is strong for individuals and groups to continue setting records discovering another depth of blackest black since the discoveries circa 2014. The actual, physical versions will likely continue to evolve too. Uses for blackest black vary, and I hope the positive uses continue to exceed the nefarious. As the material continues to mature, I will be oohing and aahing at the fascinating innovations. I’ll take one Tesla in blackest black, please.

Special thanks goes to Kevin Shriner for inspiring this column.

Jennifer Miller is an operations research analyst for the Air Force’s Cost Analysis Agency; she previously supported the National Guard Bureau Headquarters’ Joint Staff, and the Air Force and Army at locations along the East Coast. She is a Certified Government Financial Manager, and a Certified Defense Financial Manager with acquisition specialty and a member of the American Society of Military Comptroller’s Washington Chapter.

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