6 Facts About Vantablack, the Darkest Material Ever Made

In the Antenna wing of the Science Museum in London, a bronze bust of a man sits behind a wall of glass. The face, which belongs to BBC presenter Marty Jopson, isn’t very big—maybe 6 or 7 inches tall. It’s highly textured, and light catches in its rivets and dimples. Aside from the playfully upturned edges of Jopson’s mustache, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this bust. But next to it sits an identical bust that absolutely boggles the mind. It looks like someone has cut a hole in the air in the shape of Jopson’s head, leaving only a gaping, empty blackness. The texture of the face disappears into a velvety mass; only from the side is it possible to tell that the bust has any dimension at all.  

This visual magic is the work of Vantablack, the darkest material ever made by man. The ominously named coating, which absorbs virtually all light, was created by British company Surrey NanoSystems to help eliminate stray light in satellites and telescopes. It has since gathered a rabid following of artists, designers, and other curious creatives desperate to get their hands on the stuff. But despite its popularity, there’s still a lot of confusion about what this mysterious material actually is and how it can be used. mental_floss recently spoke with Surrey NanoSystem’s Steve Northam to find out about all things Vantablack; here's what we learned.

1. IT'S NOT ACTUALLY A COLOR.

Let’s get technical for a minute. Color, as we humans know it, is the result of the way light is reflected off of an object and into our eyes. Different light frequencies translate into different colors. Vantablack isn't a color, but a material. It’s made of a “forest” of tiny, hollow carbon tubes, each the width of a single atom. According to the Surrey NanoSystems website, “a surface area of [1 centimeter squared] would contain around 1000 million nanotubes.” When light hits the tubes, it’s absorbed and cannot escape—which means that actually, Vantablack is the absence of color.

2. YOU CAN'T BUY IT.

Because it’s not a pigment or a paint, you can’t just buy a bucket of it and dip a brush in and slather it onto your walls. The nanotubes that make up Vantablack must be grown in the Surrey NanoSystems lab using a complicated (and patented) process involving several machines, a few layers of different substances, and some extreme heat. From start to finish, applying Vantablack to an object can take up to two days, according to Northam. “I had an inquiry yesterday asking how much would it cost for a kilo of Vantablack pigment,” Northam says. “First of all, I can’t sell you a bucket of Vantablack, but if I could, I don’t think there’d be much on the planet that would be more expensive.” He says that, ounce for ounce, Vantablack is a lot more expensive than both diamond and gold. 

3. IT DOESN'T FEEL THE WAY IT LOOKS.

“One of the things that people often say is ‘Can I touch it?’” Northam says. “They expect it to feel like a warm velvet.” Though Vantablack does have a sort of soft, velvety look to it, Northam says that doesn’t translate to physical sensation. When you touch Vantablack, it just feels like a smooth surface. That’s because the nanotubes are so small and thin, they simply collapse under the weight of human touch. Here’s how Northam describes it: “Imagine you have a field of wheat, and instead of the wheat being 3 or 4 feet high, it’s about 1000 feet tall. That is the equivalent scale that we’re talking about for nanotubes. The reason they work is they’re very, very long compared to their diameter. It will stay upright and not blow away in the wind, but if you then try and land a plane on it, you’ll make a dent.” So, Vantablack is pretty susceptible to damage, which is why it can’t yet be applied to unprotected surfaces like cars or high-end gowns—one brush of a hand and the material would lose its magic.

4. IT HAS ALMOST NO MASS.

While Vantablack is sensitive to touch, it’s super robust against other forces, like shock and vibration. This is due to the fact that each carbon nanotube is individual, and has almost no mass at all. Plus, most of the material is air. “If there’s no mass, there’s no force during acceleration,” Northam says. This makes Vantablack ideal for protected objects that might have to endure a bumpy ride, like a space launch, for example.

5. IT COULD HAVE A NUMBER OF USES BEYOND ITS ORIGINAL APPLICATION.

The material was originally designed for super technical fields, like space equipment, where its ability to limit stray light makes it ideal for the inside of telescopes. But it could be applied in more everyday objects if the conditions are right. Northam says Surrey NanoSystems has already been approached by a handful of luxury watchmakers interested in incorporating Vantablack into their wrist candy, and high-end car manufacturers want to use it in their dashboard displays for stunning visual appearance. Northam says they also have a few smartphone makers knocking on their door.

Artists are also clamoring to get their hands on Vantablack and make some crazy, mind-boggling works of art. But for now, much to the chagrin of thousands of creatives, only one artist is allowed to work with the material, and that’s sculptor Anish Kapoor. Surrey NanoSystems gave Kapoor the exclusive rights to using Vantablack in “creative arts,” which Northam says translates into anything that’s meant to be observed purely as a work of art. He says the company will continuously reassess this agreement, but as Vantablack is still such a new material, it makes sense that they’d want to have some control over how it’s being used. “I do understand that people would wanna get their hands on this stuff,” Northam says. “But I suspect many would not want to pay the prices for it.”

6. IT WILL BE A WHILE BEFORE IT'S USED ON CLOTHES.

Vantablack could take the “little black dress” to a whole new level if it can successfully be applied to fabric without compromising its physical properties. Northam says the company is working with fabric, but Vantablack’s foray into fashion is probably a long way off. “I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we see something along the lines of a black dress,” he says, optimistically, “but we won’t see people walking down the street in it any time soon.”

All images courtesy of Surrey NanoSystems.

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Courtesy of BEDGEAR
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Testing, Testing
Sleep More Soundly with These Sweat-Busting Sheets
Courtesy of BEDGEAR
Courtesy of BEDGEAR

Catching quality Zs is vital to our health: Not only can lack of sleep cause impairment similar to what people experience when they've knocked back a few drinks, but it's been linked to health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, among others. It can be particularly challenging to get adequate shut-eye in the heat of summer, when sheets and blankets feel like the enemy and it's not unusual to wake up clammy in a puddle of your own sweat.

That kind of situation inspired Eugene Alletto to found BEDGEAR in 2009. When Alletto’s son was having sleep issues due to allergies, he discovered that the only mattress protectors available were vinyl, which made his son overheat while he was trying to sleep. So Alletto went to work creating his own bedding that would keep people at the perfect temperature for snoozing, no matter what the season, and allow for maximum recovery.

To BEDGEAR, sleep isn't just a period of rest, it's an activity—so it's fitting that the company found inspiration for its products in exercise. “Eugene determined that the performance fabrics like we wear to exercise could be engineered to provide functional benefits in bedding products,” Shana Rocheleau, VP of Strategy at BEDGEAR, told Mental Floss via email. “It was this key insight that spiraled into the wide performance products offering BEDGEAR has today.” The line started with mattress protectors and has since grown to include mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, and more.

All of this sounded very intriguing to me: I live on the top floor of my building, and temperatures in my apartment regularly hit 80 degrees—so I’m accustomed to waking up a sweaty mess in the middle of the night (at least before we put in our window air conditioning units). I was eager to see if the company's Dri-Tec Performance Sheets—which promise to "help you sleep cool and dry to ensure maximum recovery"—would help me get a better night’s rest, and BEDGEAR sent me some to try out.

According to Rocheleau, every product in the company’s line is designed chiefly with one thing in mind: air flow. “Air flow is essential to maximum sleep comfort and getting the most recovery out of the time you have to spend in bed,” she says. “When your body gets overheated, you will begin fidgeting, [but] when you sleep at the right temperature, with bedding layers that balance your body heat with your room environment through optimized air flow, [it] makes it easier for your body to follow its natural circadian rhythm of dropping two degrees at night for cellular rejuvenation, and reduces sensations of restlessness.”

To that end, when designing its products, “BEDGEAR’s product development team focused on designing a fabric that could aid in controlling humidity by keeping moisture away from your body with breathable fabrics,” Rocheleau says. “A less humid environment allows your body to cool down more quickly.”

The company doesn’t do thread counts (which it says are complicated, can be misleading, and might not actually help you sleep better, anyway) but instead uses CFM, or cubic feet per minute, “the speed at which air flows into or out of space,” Rocheleau explains—a standard unit of measurement in the HVAC and vacuum industries. Their highest performance sheets, the Dri-Tech Lites, have a CFM rating of four (736 cubic feet per minute); Dri-Tec, the sheets that I tested, have a CFM rating of 3 (407 cubic feet per minute). By comparison, Poly-spandex knit sheets (125 cubic feet per minute) and 100 percent cotton sheets with a 1200 thread count (3.89 cubic feet per minute) both have a CFM rating of zero.

BEDGEAR's product development team spent six years developing and perfecting the Dri-Tec sheets. They're made of a polyester material that evaporates moisture and expels heat, and are also equipped with ventilated mesh hems and side panels, which have a 3D structure that keeps air circulating. “Your sheets should enhance your sleep, not disrupt it by making you feel trapped by heat and/or fabrics,” Rochleau says.

Users rave about the Dri-Tec sheets ("So these sheets have 100x more airflow than traditional sheets!!! Holy cannoli!!!"), and I wasn't disappointed, either. The sheets are incredibly soft; they don’t get wrinkly or cling to you when you sleep, and yet they’re designed to move with you. (My partner and I are both restless sleepers, and I’ve found that I’m disturbed by his movements less with these sheets that I was when we were using cotton ones.) You hardly notice them, which is sort of the point. Plus, the fitted sheet has a band that keeps it securely in place, no matter how much you move around. (If only it were possible to add a similar feature to the top sheet to prevent sheet stealing.)

But best of all, since we started using the Dri-Tec sheets, I haven’t had a sweaty wake-up once. Which is not to say I haven’t woken up (I have two cats who love to climb all over me when I’m sleeping), but when I did, I noticed that I wasn’t sweaty at all.

BEDGEAR’s sheets are definitely more expensive than most of what you’ll find at Target: Depending on the size and type, they can run up to $280 a set (which is on par with the high thread count sheets from other brands). But according to some estimates, we spend up to a third of our lives sleeping, or trying to sleep—so if snoozing is a struggle for you, these sheets might be worth the investment. You can find their products on BEDGEAR's website or at retailers around the country.

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iStock
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DIY
13 Ingenious Uses for Tension Rods
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iStock

Tension rods are inexpensive tools for hanging curtains. But if you’re only using them to set up window treatments, then you’re missing out on a ton of other uses for these versatile DIY miracle workers. They come in a range of lengths and load-bearing limits, and can be installed in a minute or two. Snag a few different sizes of tension rods—which are cheap and removable for when your tastes change—and start experimenting with these creative projects.

1. INSTALL A HANGING HERB GARDEN.

You'll need a sturdy tension rod to fit your chosen window's width and a group of small hanging plant pots for this project. Place the rod within the window frame at the desired height, hang (or string) the planted pots along it, and ta-da—an instant, space-saving herb garden. This also works with your favorite sun-loving flowers or ferns. “You will never have to worry about the rod coming down, and the window placement will lend a lot of sun for flower and herb planters," Justin Krzyston, president and CEO of Stonehurst Construction and Design in Los Angeles, tells Mental Floss. "You can hang almost any kind of plant from the rod for a practical and fun way to garden indoors.”

Once your herbs are grown and picked, tie them into bunches with twine. Dry the herbs by hanging them upside-down from—you guessed it—a tension rod placed in a door frame. Dried herbs will last much longer than fresh.

2. ARRANGE YOUR ACCESSORIES.

Hang tension rods within your existing closet to corral scarves, necklaces, and small bags. “You can even hang S-hooks from the tension rod to separate your bracelets and smaller items,” Krzyston says. Hooks also make it easier to remove and put back items because you won't need to remove the rod from the closet wall to retrieve them.

3. STORE CLEANING PRODUCTS.

Annie Draddy, organizer and co-founder of New York-based personal organizing service Henry & Higby, likes to use tension rods for cleaning storage. “Use a tension rod under a sink to hang spray bottles and other cleaning implements,” she tells Mental Floss. Hanging the spray cleaners at the top of the cabinet leaves more room for other items, like sponges, towels, and buckets.

4. ORGANIZE KITCHEN CABINETS.

It’s difficult to keep all your trays and pans organized in your kitchen cabinets, especially if they’re all different sizes—but that’s where tension rods can help, Draddy says. She recommends installing a few tension rods vertically inside the cabinet and standing up flat items, like baking sheets and pans, cutting boards, pot lids, and trays, between the rods. The arrangement saves space and makes it easier to grab the pan or cookie sheet without dislodging everything else in the cabinet.

5. CREATE A BUNK BED SCREEN.

Kids who share bunk beds will love the extra privacy that tension rods and curtain panels can offer, Krzyston says. This project works best on the bottom bunk because the rods are installed between the bed posts. If the top bunk's posts extend to the ceiling, you can double this project for the top and bottom beds.

To make the world's easiest no-sew bunk bed curtains, you will need three tension rods that fit the head, foot, and side of the bunk bed; a measuring tape, scissors, four or five lightweight curtain panels depending on the size of the bed, straight pins, iron-on fusing web, and an iron. Then follow these steps.

First, install the rods between the bed posts and measure the height from the rod down to the platform of the bed (past the mattress)—this will be the curtain's length. Next, lay each curtain flat with the backside facing up. Measure the same distance down from the rod pocket, and add two inches—the extra fabric will be your hem. Draw a line with a pencil across the curtain at that length, or mark with pins, and then cut each curtain along the line. Lay a piece of the iron-on fusing web across the curtain, 3 inches from and parallel to the end. Fold up the two-inch hem over the web and pin in place. (Now, measure the sides of the curtain to make sure they're of equal length, and adjust if necessary.)

Iron the hem to fuse it in place, removing the pins as you go. Once the fabric is cool, install the curtains on the rods. “The sturdy construction of the bed will lend an easy place for the curtains to hang without worry of them coming down,” Krzyston says. Boom: super-cool bed fort!

6. KEEP TUB TOYS TIDY.

This trick works on tubs with walls on three sides. Find a tension rod roughly equal to the longer side of your tub. String an even number of shower rings on it and install along the wall side of the tub. Then, hang small plastic bins from the rings (two per bin, which keeps them level) for storing small toys, and you’ll never have to step on a Paw Patrol toy again.

7. CONCEAL CLUTTER.

Are your bookcases and shelving units packed with odds and ends? Disguise the clutter behind an easy-to-assemble screen. Pop a tension rod between the sides of the cabinet at the height of the stuff you want to hide. Then, hang a curtain or drape a piece of patterned fabric over the rod, and you’ll have a custom-made junk-concealer. You can even string clip-style curtain rings on the rod and clip on a fabric panel—the rings will make it easier to push the panel to the side when you need to retrieve items from the shelves. Try it anywhere you need to mask garbage bins, Costco-sized pantry items, or other unsightly necessities.

8. CATEGORIZE BOOKS.

Short tension rods can take the place of cumbersome bookends and leave you more space for storing and displaying actual books. Install the rods vertically within the bookshelf to corral paperbacks, hardcover titles, magazines, or notebooks. You can also organize and divide your collection by theme or subject matter by installing rods vertically between the sections.

9. SET UP A CLOTHESLINE.

Make your space-saving indoor clothesline by putting a tension rod in the doorway of your laundry room or in any unused corner. You can pin garments to the rod with clothespins or air-dry shirts on hangers. The rod can also serve as a finishing area for freshly ironed clothes. The best part: Pop out the rod when you're done, and it will look like laundry never happened.

10. MAKE A FORT.

You don’t need to buy anything fancy to provide kids with a few hours of fun. Insert a tension rod under a desk or table, in the hallway, or in a low-traffic doorway. Have the kids drape a sheet or blanket over the rod, spread it out, and weigh down its edges with pillows—instant hideway! Or build a "condo" with multiple rods at varying levels down an entire hallway. The special space will boost the kids' imaginations and spark creative games.

11. HIDE THE LITTER BOX.

Litter boxes are a fact of life if you have a cat, but that doesn’t mean her business has to be visible. If the litter box is sitting in a corner of a closet, you can conceal it and create storage space at the same time. Install a shelf on the wall above the box at your desired height. The shelf's width should be about the same as the closet, and its depth roughly equal to the litter box (you might want to turn the box so the longer side is against the wall, but make sure the cat can still get in). Install a tension rod just under the lip of the shelf and hang short curtains (use the curtain-customizing method in #5) or drape a piece of fabric over the rod. Now Princess will have some privacy, and you can store her food, litter, and other feline accoutrements on the shelf.

12. CAMOUFLAGE UNDER-BED CLUTTER.

Choose a longish tension rod and install it between the legs of the bed on its visible side. Cut an oblong piece of fabric that, when doubled lengthwise over the rod, will hide the clutter underneath the bed. Repeat the steps for other sides of the bed. You’ll never have to see the mess again, and you can change the fabric's pattern or color whenever your design aesthetic evolves.

13. CONSTRUCT A BLACKOUT COCOON.

City dwellers have to deal with bright streetlights seeping in their windows at night. Even with the curtains closed, the light pollution can disrupt sleep. Ensure restful slumber with this fast blackout hack: Slide a tension rod that is roughly the width of your bedroom window into the rod pocket of a blackout curtain panel of similar width. Then, install the rod and curtain inside window frame, allowing the curtain to closely cover as much window area as possible. Close the existing curtains for a virtually pitch-black boudoir.

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