Scientists make the blackest material yet

January 17, 2008


A step closer to the perfect black.

When I saw this I thought I was going to discover some really cool science. I still think it is.

But what I also found was a practical lesson in the erratic nature of science reporting.

Vertical carbon nanotubes blanket a silicon wafer to form a plush carpet. The diameter of these hollow, single-walled fibers is 10,000 times smaller than that of a human hair. Photo: Hongjie Dai, Stanford University

I came across the article ‘Darkest ever’ material created, by Helen Briggs, BBC News science reporter, 16th Jan, 2008, though there’s an earlier an just as interesting one A dark discovery — no, really, this stuff is dark, by Eric Berger, Houston Chronicle, 14th Jan, 2008. Strangely, they give different accounts of just how dark the material is. And the (U.S.) National Public Radio (NPR) has an audio interview with Ajayan, University Makes New Black from Tiny Carbon Tubes, by Melissa Block, 16th Jan, 2008.

Science articles in the general press, even reputable sources often leave me with wanting more detail, or even accurate detail. But even when you look for it, it’s not always there. This work was published “last week” or in a “forthcoming issue” (depending on the news source) in Nano Letters, for nanoscale research, although it doesn’t appear to be (publicly) available (yet).

The material was created by building an array of vertically aligned, low-density carbon nanotubes, by a team led by Dr Pulickel Ajayan, Professor in Engineering Materials Science and Nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and Dr Shawn Lin, Professor of Physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who measured the optical properties. There’s what could be a really interesting lecture by Dr Ajayan, Engineering at the Nanoscale: Carbon Nanotubes and Beyond, if you’re in the area on Thursday (Jan 24th, 2008), but there’s more on his work with the Ajayan Research Group.

Even the image with the BBC article, and for that matter mine, aren’t from the same source as the news. For some mystifying reason, I thought they’d have a picture of the material itself, rather than a picture of its structure, which doesn’t shed much light (pun intended) on what this is about.

Professor Sir John Pendry “first predicted that such a discovery might be possible”, according to the BBC. (He is currently Chair in Theoretical Solid State Physics at Imperial College, London, and member of their Condensed Matter Theory Group.) But when did he predict this?

The BBC article goes on to quote him,

The application will be to things like more efficient solar cells, more efficient solar panels and any application where you need to harvest light.

This is fascinating stuff. So what are they? Bizarrely, the report then goes on to list 12 uses for nanotechnologies, several of which have nothing to do with the special non-reflecting properties of the material created.

A small digression – stories within stories…Professor Sir John has a remarkable background, which his webpages don’t shout about his research to the non-physics knowledgeable but interested reader, and even the John Pendry Wikipedia page doesn’t say much. Some alternative pages about his work, for example, …

The MonolithPushing the technology to a limit, would a material like this be any use to help power the Monolith in Arthur C Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey?Something I may one day check… I thought the Monolith in the book was without reflection, though in the Stanley Kubrick film it does reflect light (though that could be because they couldn’t get round the effect of studio lights on its surface).

And of course the picture at the top isn’t black, or you couldn’t see the details!


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