Nanotechnology and nanomaterials; where science meets art

By Oskar Majeswki

It is no secret that a lot of great work has been done with carbon nanotubes at the Flinders Centre for NanoScale Science and Technology.  This includes practical research, such as their incorporation into solar cells, in flexible transparent electrodes and as high performance tips for AFM imaging, as well as fundamental research, such as improving their sorting by chirality and diameter, and even slicing them to the desired lengths with the use of lasers.  With their potential benefits as a nanomaterial, this cutting edge and interesting research has lead carbon nanotubes to capture the public’s imagination like no material has previously.

Given their amazing properties, such as an incredible strength-to-weight ratio, and their ability to conduct heat and electricity better than copper, it is no wonder that many consumer products are starting to feature carbon nanotubes.  For UK company Surrey NanoSystems however, it is the light absorbance properties of carbon nanotubes that has caught their eye. Cue VantaBlack; a product which is essentially a treatment process for coating literally any surface in a dense “forest” of carbon nanotubes, giving everyday objects an unnerving, black hole-like appearance.

A sample of VantaBlack applied to a crinkled piece of aluminium foil, illustrating the total absence of texture seen when it is applied to a 3D surface. Image source

Photos of objects coated in VantaBlack soon went viral on the internet, and suddenly a material ubiquitously known to nanotechnology researchers and students was gaining widespread coverage.  This resulted in many people asking “where do I buy this?” and “can it be applied to this object?”, with many people probably having no idea that this product contained such a widely researched nanomaterial.  Certainly, something so unusual can stir quite an emotional response from a lot of people.

Here the story of this remarkable product takes a darker turn. As artists began inquiring about obtaining VantaBlack for use in their artwork, they found that Surrey NanoSystems had established an exclusive licencing agreement with controversial British artist, Anish Kapoor.  Colour is known to affect a person’s mood and is a central aspect of all visual art; so needless to say, having exclusive access to the world’s blackest known material caused quite a backlash from the art community.  Enter a collaborative effort involving thousands of “colour chemists, specialists from the cosmetics industry and architectural coatings experts” spearheaded by another British artist, Stuart Semple.  This has resulted in the creation of Black 2.0.  This product is touted as being “the most pigmented, flattest, mattest, black acrylic paint in the world”.  Interestingly, unlike VantaBlack, it does not require state-of-the-art lab equipment and special handling; only a paintbrush, roller or airbrush for application, and is readily available and reasonably cheap.  It is not explicitly stated whether Black 2.0 is also based on carbon nanotubes, but comparing images of objects coated with both Black 2.0 and VantaBlack, it would be unsurprising if it did.

There are many possible morals to take from this story. First and foremost, that often when a scientific discovery is made, it is hard to predict the myriad real world applications people will find for it.  Secondly, as the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of all invention.  With the increased connectivity between people and the effective democratisation and accessibility of knowledge on the internet, coupled with the newly invigorated “maker” movement, I predict we will be seeing more of these sorts of stories.  It is impressive to think a collaboration of likeminded artists and scientists have effectively reverse engineered and arguably improved upon a cutting-edge scientific discovery, making it more accessible in the process.  Lastly, I don’t think scientists should hold back from finding “out of the box” applications of their work, especially when it comes to things like art.

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