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Why The Art World Is Fighting Over A Bizarre Material Developed For Satellites

Vantablack may be the blackest material ever created—and everyone wants to use it.

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It’s not every day that you get to watch art world royalty duke it out over the right to use advanced nanotechnology. But that’s exactly what happened this week, after The Daily Mail reported that Sir Anish Kapoor had been granted the exclusive rights to use a material called Vantablack—also known as the blackest material ever created by humans. The U.K. painter Christian Furr was one of some critics who weren't happy about the news. "We should be able to use it," he told the Mail. "It isn’t right that it belongs to one man."

So, what is this alchemical material? And who, exactly, has the rights to license a color? The story is surprisingly interesting—it involves the search for exoplanets, NASA, and even some unsettling health claims.

The race to create the blackest black has been on for decades, and it grew from the search for ever-more-distant light from far-off galaxies. Using telescopes and other imaging sensors to detect light from these distant objects is a precarious game, given our own blaringly bright solar system, and scientists have long searched for a reliable way to block out any interference when looking deep into space. Even in deep space, light from stars and other planets can reflect off of a spacecraft’s many metal and PV parts, creating noise that muffles what the system is really trying to "see."

The obvious solution to this problem is to paint everything black. But in the high-stress vacuum of space, normal paint won’t do. In 2011, NASA announced it had developed a special, super-durable black coating of carbon nanotubes that could absorb almost every type of light and withstand the tough conditions of space. The bizarre material is covered in a "forest" of carbon nanotubes grown vertically in a super-heated lab, creating an extraordinarily dense surface area that absorbs any and all light. "Our material is darn near perfect across multiple wavelength bands, from the ultraviolet to the far infrared," said project lead John Hagopian at the time. "No one else has achieved this milestone yet."

The next year, a team of researchers led by the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory and a company called Surrey Nanosystems announced the creation of a very similar coating. Their material was intended to be used on satellites as well, to absorb the various infrared and visible light waves that could interfere with sensitive optical systems. And like NASA’s coating, the material used an incredibly dense coating of vertically oriented carbon nanotubes to suck up 99.96% of light.

In fact, both of these materials are so dark humans technically can’t even "see" them: We’re simply seeing the complete absence of light. Soon, the terrestrial applications of their material—now known as Vantablack (Vanta is an acronym for "Vertically Aligned Carbon NanoTube Array")—became clear, and today, Surrey is focused on turning the space-borne material into an Earthly hit, with collaborations that range from art, to marketing, to military applications.

Kapoor got involved with the company last year, as well, writing that he was intrigued by the material after meeting Surrey Nanosystems’ CTO, Ben Jensen. The version of the material he acquired the rights to use is actually a second version of the original that’s much easier to apply to surfaces—it looks the same as the original Vantablack, but can be sprayed on, and allows a small amount of electromagnetic spectrum through.

What does Kapoor plan to do with the stuff? While the studio declined to comment, Kapoor did offer a hint last year in Art Forum: "It’s a physical thing that you cannot see, giving it a transcendent or even transcendental dimension, which I think is very compelling. Imagine walking into a room where you literally have no sense of the walls—where the walls are or that there are any walls at all. It’s not an empty dark room, but a space full of darkness."

While Surrey Nanosystems also declined to comment for this article, it pointed out that Kapoor only holds the rights to use Vantablack in art within the U.K., since the material doesn’t pass U.K. export laws. It’s unclear whether the license is in perpetuity or limited, or whether Kapoor will have the power to extend the rights to other artists.

It's worth pointing out that not only is it insanely expensive to use Vantablack, which must be applied by an expert, questions remain about the safety of carbon nanotubes, which have been shown to be carcinogenic in rats. "We have ongoing partnerships with European research facilities investigating nanomaterials' safety," Surrey says in a FAQ. "New data and relevant publications will be uploaded to our resources section as and when they become available." In other words, even if Kapoor hadn’t acquired exclusive rights to the stuff, it’s pretty unlikely we would be seeing it used widely by other artists.

Still, it’s pretty fascinating to see a technology originally developed for advanced optical systems already making its way into the art world. Yves Klein would certainly have approved.

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