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Why Scientists and Artists Want The Blackest Substances on Earth | Wired

https://thescene.com/watch/wired/why-scientists-and-artists-want-the-blackest-substances-on-earth

Artists and scientists are searching for ever more light-absorbing materials. To find out what’s behind the quest for ultra-blacks, WIRED’s Arielle Pardes talked with artist Stuart Semple and physicist John Lehman about these amazing materials.

RELEASED ON 1/17/2020


CULTURE HUSTLE’S BLACK 3.0


TRANSCRIPT

00:00
THIS IS AN ULTRA-BLACK. 
00:02
AND IN CASE YOU MISSED THE MEMO, 
00:04
ULTRA-BLACKS ARE THE NEW BLACK. 
00:06
THESE LIGHT-CAPTURING COATINGS HAVE BEEN USED 
00:09
TO COVER LUXURY CARS, AND EVEN MAKE ART PROJECTS. 
00:13
[POPPING] 
00:14
LIKE THIS BLACK HOLE, WHICH WAS SO BLACK
00:17
A VIEWER ACTUALLY FELL IN.
00:19
THEIR DEPTH PERCEPTION RENDERED USELESS
00:21
BY THE OPTICAL ILLUSION.
00:23
THAT BLACK HOLE IS AN ARTWORK BY THE ARTIST ANISH KAPOOR,
00:26
WHO CONTROVERSIALLY SECURED EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS TO USE WHAT WAS
00:30
THEN THE BLACKEST COATING CALLED VANTABLACK IN HIS WORK.
00:33
THAT UPSET A LOT OF OTHER ARTISTS WHO ALSO WANTED
00:37
TO USE THESE BLACKEST BLACKS.
00:39
AND THE WHOLE ART COMMUNITY WERE LIKE,
00:40
WE CAN’T TAKE THIS!
00:41
THIS IS SO OUT OF ORDER!
00:43
THIS IS SO RUDE.
00:44
YOU’VE GOTTA MAKE A BLACK THAT’S BETTER THAN HIS BLACK.
00:47
THAT’S STUART SEMPLE, AND HE CREATED THIS PAINT,
00:50
WHICH IS ONE OF THE BLACKEST PAINTS YOU CAN BUY.
00:52
[STUART] BLACK 3.0 IS LITERALLY THE CLOSEST YOU CAN GET
00:55
TO A BLACK HOLE IN A BOTTLE.
00:57
[ARIELLE] BUT HERE’S THE THING, THERE ARE BLACKER BLACKS.
01:00
AND SCIENTISTS ARE MEASURING JUST
01:02
HOW MUCH LIGHT THEY CAN CAPTURE.
01:04
OUR BLACKS ARE THE BLACKEST THAT WE KNOW OF.
01:07
[ARIELLE] THAT’S JOHN LEHMAN, A SCIENTIST AT
01:09
THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STANDARDS AND TECHNOLOGY.
01:11
HE’S HELPED DEVELOP ONE OF THE BLACKEST ULTRA-BLACKS YET.
01:15
THE NOT-SO-SECRET SAUCE?
01:18
CARBON NANOTUBES, WHICH CAN ONLY REALLY
01:21
BE SEEN UNDER POWERFUL MAGNIFICATION.
01:23
CARBON NANOTUBES ARE A STRUCTURE MADE OF A LAYER
01:27
OF GRAPHENES A MILLIONTH OF THE DIAMETER OF A HUMAN HAIR.
01:32
THOSE NANOTUBE BLACKS MIGHT HAVE MILITARY APPLICATIONS,
01:34
BE USEFUL FOR PHOTOGRAPHY,
01:36
AND TO MAKE EVER MORE ACCURATE SENSORS.
01:39
SO, WHY DO WE CARE?
01:41
I SPOKE TO BOTH SEMPLE AND LEHMAN
01:43
TO FIND OUT WHAT’S BEHIND THIS RACE TO MAKE
01:46
THE MOST LIGHT TRAPPING SUBSTANCES YET.
01:49
BUT FIRST, LET’S WATCH SOME PAINT DRY.
01:53
FOR YOU THIS JOURNEY REALLY BEGAN WITH ANISH KAPOOR,
01:57
AND THIS SORT OF LOCKING UP OF THE BLACKEST BLACK.
02:01
IF THAT HADN’T HAPPENED, WOULD THERE BE THIS RACE
02:03
TO CREATE THE BLACKEST BLACK IN THE ART WORLD?
02:05
I DON’T THINK THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN,
02:07
BECAUSE I DON’T THINK THE ART WORLD WOULD HAVE EVEN KNOWN
02:09
THAT THERE WAS A MATERIAL LIKE THIS.
02:11
I MEAN IF IT HAD STAYED IN ASTRONOMY, OR DEFENSE,
02:14
OR MILITARY OR SOMETHING, WE WOULDN’T HAVE KNOWN IT EXISTED.
02:16
BUT BECAUSE ANISH WAS USING IT,
02:19
ARTISTS SORT OF TUNED INTO IT,
02:21
AND THEN WE REALIZED THAT WE WANTED
02:23
TO HAVE A GO AND USE SOMETHING LIKE THAT, TOO.
02:25
WE’RE ARTISTS.
02:26
WE’RE INTERESTED IN WHAT YOU CAN SEE WITH YOUR EYE.
02:28
SO REALLY, IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT IT IS DOING IN
02:30
THE INFRARED SPECTRUM, AND UV SPECTRUM IN A SCIENCE LAB.
02:34
WHAT WE WANT IS A REALLY FLAT BLACK LOOKING BLACK
02:36
WE CAN MAKE WORK WITH.
02:38
SO, IF YOU PUT IT NEXT TO VANTABLACK,
02:40
YEAH IT KINDA LOOKS SIMILAR TO THE NAKED EYE.
02:42
BUT IF YOU START MEASURING IT IN A LAB,
02:43
THERE’S MILES OF DIFFERENCE.
02:45
WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE ARE SO EXCITED ABOUT
02:48
THE IDEA OF CREATING THE BLACKEST BLACK PAINT?
02:52
I THINK ARTISTS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN VERY INTERESTED IN BLACK
02:55
BECAUSE IT’S ACTUALLY NOT A COLOR.
02:57
WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT,
03:00
AND THAT’S JUST BEEN EXCITING SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME.
03:03
SO WHEN YOU’RE GOING ABOUT TRYING TO MAKE
03:05
A PAINT THAT IS NOT A COLOR,
03:07
BUT THE ABSENCE OF COLOR, WHERE DO YOU BEGIN?
03:10
A LOT OF THE OTHER SUPER BLACK THINGS
03:12
THAT YOU SEE ARE SCIENTIFIC PROCESSES.
03:14
AND THEY’RE INCREDIBLE, BUT THEY’RE MADE IN LABS,
03:17
AND THEY GROW NANOTUBES,
03:19
AND THEY’RE MADE IN VACUUM CHAMBERS.
03:20
IT’S COMPLICATED.
03:21
WE APPROACHED IT LIKE PAINT MAKERS.
03:23
SO, BLACK 3 ISN’T THE SAME THING
03:26
AS THESE VANTABLACKS OR SINGULARITY BLACK.
03:29
ALTHOUGH IT DOES HAVE NANO PARTICLES IN IT,
03:32
IT IS VERY MUCH A PAINT.
03:34
SO WE HAD TO CREATE AN NEW PIGMENT
03:36
FROM SCRATCH CALLED BLACK MAGIC, WHICH IS BORN MATTE.
03:39
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF THE WAYS
03:41
YOU’VE SEEN BLACK 3.0 BEING USED IN THE WILD?
03:44
I’VE SEEN IT USED IN SO MANY EXCITING WAYS.
03:47
YOU KNOW, WE ALWAYS WANTED TO MAKE SOMETHING USABLE,
03:49
SO THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT.
03:50
BUT ASTRONOMERS ARE USING IT,
03:52
AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS INSIDE THEIR TELESCOPES,
03:54
SO THEY REFLECT LESS LIGHT.
03:55
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE USING IT INSIDE CAMERA BODIES.
03:58
MAGICIANS ARE USING IT.
04:00
[ARIELLE] SURE, THIS PAINT IS COOL,
04:02
AND IT MAKES FOR SOME PRETTY NEAT ART PROJECTS,
04:04
BUT SCIENTISTS ARE PUSHING
04:06
FOR THESE LIGHT ABSORBING MATERIALS FOR DIFFERENT REASONS.
04:09
THIS IS A MICROSCOPIC IMAGE OF A FOREST OF CARBON NANOTUBES.
04:13
THAT’S WHAT MAKES THE MOST LIGHT ABSORBING
04:15
ULTRA-BLACKS WORK SO WELL.
04:17
CARBON NANOTUBES ARE A STRUCTURE MADE
04:20
OF A LAYER OF GRAPHENES A MILLIONTH
04:22
OF THE DIAMETER OF A HUMAN HAIR.
04:26
[ARIELLE] SO, HOW DO THESE CARBON NANOTUBES
04:27
CAPTURE PARTICLES OF LIGHT, OR PHOTONS
04:29
AS SCIENTISTS CALL THEM?
04:31
SO BASICALLY WHAT WE’RE DOING WHEN
04:33
WE MAKE SOMETHING VERY BLACK
04:35
IS WE’RE CREATING THIS TOPOLOGY WHEREIN
04:40
IF PHOTONS INTERSECT THIS COATING,
04:43
THEY RATTLE AROUND UNTIL THEY GET ABSORBED.
04:45
BUT MAKING LIGHT-ABSORBING CARBON NANOTUBES ISN’T EASY.
04:49
IT HAS TO BE DONE UNDER CAREFUL CONDITIONS.
04:51
EACH LAB DOES IT A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY,
04:53
BUT THE BASICS ARE ROUGHLY THE SAME.
04:55
SO, WHEN YOU’RE DEVELOPING THIS EXTREMELY BLACK,
04:58
LIGHT-ABSORBING SURFACE,
05:00
YOU HAVE TO START WITH THESE NANOTUBES.
05:02
HOW ARE THOSE GROWN OR DEVELOPED?
05:04
SO, LET’S SAY WE’RE GONNA MAKE SOME CARBON NANOTUBES.
05:07
SO, WE DO IN FACT GROW THEM IN AN EVACUATED OVEN.
05:12
THAT IS IT HAS A VACUUM.
05:14
AND WE’RE GONNA INTRODUCE CARBON INTO THAT OVEN,
05:17
AND THAT’S GONNA BE THE BASIS OF THE NANOTUBE.
05:20
SO WE’RE GONNA GROW THE NANOTUBES ON A SUBSTRATE,
05:22
WHICH IS IN OUR CASE IS SILICON.
05:25
YOU CAN THINK OF THAT AS A COOKIE SHEET.
05:26
THEN WE’RE GONNA GREASE THE COOKIE SHEET WITH IRON,
05:29
AND THEN AS THE SUBSTRATE HEATS UP,
05:32
AND THE CARBON IS INTRODUCED,
05:34
THE NANOTUBE WILL START TO GROW FROM THE SUBSTRATE.
05:39
AND THE LONGER WE BAKE IT, SO TO SPEAK,
05:42
THE TALLER THE NANOTUBE WILL GROW.
05:45
AFTER THAT, WE TAKE IT OUT OF THE OVEN,
05:46
AND WE HAVE A WAFER WITH NANOTUBES ON IT.
05:49
SO, THE WHOLE POINT OF THIS IS MORE
05:51
THAN JUST A VANITY PROJECT.
05:52
WE’RE NOT JUST TRYING TO MAKE THE BLACKEST BLACK
05:54
BECAUSE IT MAKES FOR COOL ART,
05:56
OR BECAUSE IT’S A GREAT THING TO BRAG ABOUT.
05:59
BUT BECAUSE THERE ARE REAL PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
06:01
OF THIS STUFF.
06:02
EXACTLY.
06:03
WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS
06:05
WE CAN DO WITH THESE BLACKEST BLACKS?
06:07
WE’RE NOT JUST TRYING TO MAKE THE BLACKEST BLACK,
06:09
WE’RE TRYING TO MAKE USEFUL DETECTORS, RIGHT?
06:13
SO, THE CARBON NANOTUBE COATINGS ON A DETECTOR ALLOW US
06:17
TO DO BETTER MEASUREMENTS OF THE TEMPERATURE OF THE EARTH.
06:20
THERE IS ROOM FOR 10 TIMES IMPROVEMENT
06:24
OVER WHAT’S BEEN DONE.
06:25
THE TEMPERATURE MEASUREMENTS WE HAVE
06:28
OF THE EARTH RIGHT NOW COULD BE IMPROVED
06:30
BY A FACTOR OF 10 WITH YOUR INSTRUMENTS?
06:34
THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT WE CAN DO
06:35
IN THE LAB ON EARTH, AND WHAT WE CAN DO IN SPACE.
06:39
SO, OUR GOALS FOR WHAT WE’RE DOING IN SPACE
06:42
ARE APPROACHING A 10 TIMES IMPROVEMENT.
06:46
AND BECAUSE WE CAN PUT THEM ON SMALL, FAST,
06:50
RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE DETECTORS MEANS WE CAN PUT
06:52
THEM INTO SPACE MORE READILY.
06:54
I’M IMAGINING THESE SORT OF SATELLITES PAINTED WITH
06:58
THE BLACKEST BLACK COATING BEING LAUNCHED INTO SPACE.
07:01
IS THAT SORT OF ACCURATE?
07:03
OR CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOU’VE ACTUALLY SENT INTO SPACE?
07:06
SO, FOR THE BLACKEST COATINGS THAT WE PUT ON DETECTORS,
07:11
THEY’RE TYPICALLY PART OF A LARGER INSTRUMENT.
07:14
SO, THE DETECTOR MIGHT BE A FEW MILLIMETERS BY A MILLIMETER,
07:19
AND IT’S BURIED INSIDE THIS INSTRUMENT THAT HAS A PRISM,
07:23
AND SOME OPTICS, AND SO ON.
07:25
SO IT’S TAKING THAT LIGHT, DISPERSING IT,
07:28
PICKING A WAVELENGTH AND LOOKING AT IT VERY CLOSELY.
07:31
AND DO YOU JUST HAVE THE ONE SATELLITE,
07:33
OR WHAT KIND OF SCALE ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
07:35
RIGHT NOW WE JUST HAVE ONE SATELLITE.
07:37
WE’VE JUST LAUNCHED OUR FIRST ONE,
07:41
AND WE HAVE ANOTHER ONE PLANNED.
07:42
[ARIELLE] THIS OBVIOUSLY ISN’T THE FIRST ATTEMPT
07:44
TO MAKE AN ULTRA-BLACK BLACK.
07:46
THERE ARE OTHER MATERIALS LIKE VANTABLACK IS ONE
07:49
THAT’S BEEN IN THE HEADLINES A LOT.
07:50
BLACK 3.0 PAINT IS ANOTHER ONE.
07:52
WHAT MAKES YOUR BLACK DIFFERENT THAN THOSE ONES?
07:56
WE ARE INTERESTED SCIENTIFICALLY IN THIS QUESTION
07:58
OF WHAT’S THE BLACKEST BLACK,
08:01
AND TO BE FRANK, WE HAVE A PUBLICATION WHICH SHOWS
08:07
THAT OUR BLACKS ARE THE BLACKEST THAT WE KNOW OF.
08:10
AND WE’VE RIGOROUSLY DEFENDED THE UNCERTAINTIES
08:12
AND THE MEASUREMENT METHOD.
08:14
AND IN A SPIRIT OF SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS,
08:18
I WOULD CHALLENGE ANYBODY ELSE TO DO THE SAME
08:21
AND SEE IF THE AGREE WITH US.
08:23
BY YOUR OWN MEASUREMENTS,
08:25
THE MATERIAL YOU’VE DEVELOPED CAPTURES SOME SMALL PERCENTAGE
08:29
OF MORE LIGHT THAN ANYTHING ELSE OUT THERE.
08:33
THAT’S WHAT WE BELIEVE.
08:34
WHEN WE GET TO THIS LEVEL OF BLACKNESS,
08:39
WE’RE IN THIS REALM OF, WELL,
08:42
IS IT REALLY THE BLACKEST BLACK,
08:43
OR IS IT THE BEST MEASUREMENT OF THE BLACKEST BLACK?
08:47
AND SO AT LEAST IN THE SCIENTIFIC WORLD FOR US,
08:51
WHERE WE HAVE TO KNOW VERY ACCURATELY,
08:54
WE PUT EFFORT INTO THAT.
08:55
SO I DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH BLACKER WE CAN MAKE SOMETHING
08:58
AND ACTUALLY KNOW THAT WE MADE IT BLACKER.
09:00
BECAUSE THERE’S SUCH A SMALL AMOUNT
09:02
OF LIGHT BEING REFLECTED BACK THAT IT
09:04
BECOMES INCREASINGLY HARD TO MEASURE
09:05
AT THAT AMOUNT OF LIGHT.
09:06
YES, EXACTLY. EXACTLY.
09:09
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.
09:12
YEAH, IT’S GREAT TO TALK TO YOU.
09:13
THANK YOU.
09:18
[ROCK MUSIC]
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