There’s a New Blackest Black in Town

Artist Diemut Strebe covered a $2 million diamond with a substance that absorbs 99.995 percent of any incoming light

The Redemption of Vanity, a work of art by MIT artist in residence Diemut Strebe in conjunction with with Brian L. Wardle, MIT professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, along with Luiz Acauan and Estelle Cohen. Diemut Strebe

Inside the hallowed halls of the New York Stock Exchange is brilliant yellow diamond that once sparkled like the twinkling rays of the sun. But to gaze upon it now is to stare into nothingness, the diamond’s glistening facets transformed into a dark, flat void. As part of a collaboration between MIT researchers and the artist Diemut Strebe, this precious gem has been covered with a new substance so black that it swallows 99.995 percent of any incoming light, making it the blackest material on Earth.

“The project explores material and immaterial value attached to objects and concepts in reference to luxury, society and to art. The artwork is presenting the literal devaluation of a diamond, which is highly symbolic and of high economic value,” says Strebe in a statement.

Obscuring the beauty of a $2 million diamond might seem like a strange thing to do, but the blackest of all blacks is itself a coveted prize. The craze began with Vantablack, an ultra-black coating developed by Surrey Nanosystems that absorbs 99.96 percent of light. In 2016, the artist Anish Kapoor acquired the exclusive rights to use Vantablack in an artistic capacity, which rankled other artists—most notably Stuart Semple, who created the world’s “pinkest pink” and “most glittery glitter,” and made them accessible to all artists except Kapoor. Extending the squabble, Kapoor posted an Instagram photo of his raised middle finger, coated in Semple’s pink pigment.

Semple subsequently created his own super-dark acrylic paint, and in 2017, the Massachusetts-based NanoLab released its own light-obliterating black coating called Singularity Black. Both substances were available for artists to purchase and use, though neither were as dark as Vantablack. The MIT black, however, is the darkest of them all, “10 times blacker than anything that has previously been reported,” according to the university. It was Strebe's idea to paint it on the diamond, which after much discussion was provided by jeweler LJ West.

Brian Wardle, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and Kehang Cui, a former MIT postdoctoral student who is now a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, were inspired by Strebe's work while tinkering with ways to grow carbon nanotubes (CNTs) on electrically conducting materials like aluminum, according to CNN’s Kendall Trammell. CNTs are tiny carbon cylinders that trap and absorb light—they were used in the manufacture of both Vantablack and Singularity Black.

“With this sort of class of materials, it's actually natural processes that create them,” Wardle explains in an interview with Carol Off of the CBC. “We grow them from a catalyst nanoparticle seed, super saturated with gaseous carbon, and then that starts to extrude a carbon hollow tube very quickly. And when you get lots of catalyst particles working next to each other, and you get 50 billion per square centimetre, you can grow grass or, if you get the recipe right, you can grow a forest of these nanotubes.”

Wardle and Cui suspected that growing CNTs on aluminum would enhance the material’s thermal and electrical properties, and they turned out to be right. But the researchers did not anticipate just how dark the resulting substance would be. They found that it was gulping up light from every angle, to an even greater degree than Vantablack. The work begun in 2014 by Strebe, an artist-in-residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology, presented an opportunity for collaboration.

Strebe wanted to showcase the new ultra-black on a diamond because like CNTs, diamonds are made from carbon, yet they are highly reflective. “The unification of extreme opposites in one object and the particular aesthetic features of the CNTs caught my imagination for this art project,” Strebe explains.

The choice of venue for the new exhibition, which is titled “The Redemption of Vanity,” was also deliberate. “The New York Stock Exchange ... as the holy grail of value determination and generation seems to be a [good match] when considering the man-made arbitrary character of value attachment to concepts and things,” adds Strebe in a statement. “In this sense the chosen site can be seen as an enhancement and a sharpening of the art project.”

It’s not just the art world that is interested in materials of nearly unfathomable blackness. According to MIT, the famed astrophysicist John Mather is already looking into the possibility of using the new black as the basis for a huge “star shade,” which would shield space telescopes from stray light. It was NASA, in fact, that commissioned Singularity Black from NanoLabs to reduce the glare on instruments used to observe distant stars.

Wardle and Cui have published details about discovery in the journal ACS-Applied Materials and Interfaces. But they think it’s only a matter of time before a new contender for the title of blackest black comes along.

“I think the blackest black is a constantly moving target,” Wardle says. “Someone will find a blacker material, and eventually we’ll understand all the underlying mechanisms, and will be able to properly engineer the ultimate black.”

Editor's note, September 23, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify the involvement of Strebe in the project and where the idea to coat the diamond originated from.

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