The unseen is always mysterious, but a British company has now developed the "un-seeable", a black material that is so dense it is totally incomprehensible to the human eye.
The new record-breaking "alien" fabric is 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, and absorbs all visual light bar an infinitesimal 0.035 per cent. Looking at it is apparently akin to staring into a black hole, a total void, as our eyes are unable to discern any shape or form and therefore register it as nothing at all.
The textile has been grown on sheets of aluminium foil and has been christened "Vantablack" by its inventors, a Newhaven-based company called Surrey Nanosystems. It is made by compressing a field of nanotubes, which are tiny thin tubes reminiscent of drinking straws. The minute tubes are so small that light particles are unable to access their interiors, although they can pass into the gaps between, and all but a tiny remnant of the light bounces around until it is absorbed.
The fabric is flexible and can be moulded into different shapes; however, when formed to cover a miniature landscape, for example, the whole area disappears:
"You expect to see the hills and all you can see … it’s like black, like a hole, like there’s nothing there. It just looks so strange," said Ben Jensen, the firm’s chief technical officer.
The new substance has been unveiled in the journal Optics Express, and will be officially launched at the Farnborough International Airshow in the U.K. on 19th-20th July.
Black surfaces are generally regarded as colourless and some people argue that black is not really a color at all, but Stephen Westland, professor of colour science and technology at Leeds University explained that traditional black was actually a colour of light. He said that scientists were now pushing it to something beyond the realms of the known spectrum.
"Many people think black is the absence of light. I totally disagree with that. Unless you are looking at a black hole, nobody has actually seen something which has no light," he said. "These new materials, they are pretty much as black as we can get, almost as close to a black hole as we could imagine."
What are the potential uses for the new invisible fabric?
Vantablack is able to conduct heat seven and a half times more effectively than copper and has 10 times the tensile strength of steel. Surrey Nanosystems believe that it could be utilised to calibrate astronomical cameras, used to take photographs of the most ancient objects in the universe, which require their lens to be aimed at something as black as possible.
Because it has "virtually undetectable levels of outgassing and particle fallout", which can contaminate the most sensitive imaging systems, it can also facilitate enhanced functionality in telescopes and infrared scanning systems. All of these improvements will come at a price, however: Vantablack is extremely expensive to produce, and its makers will not reveal exactly what the cost of the enigmatic new material is.
As befits such an enigmatic material, there are more covert military uses for its unique properties, but Surrey Nanosystems were unable to reveal any details regading these; they are presumably classified "black projects"…
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