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'An Absence Of Light': Waltham-Based Lab Makes One Of The World's Blackest Paints05:53
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A dress covered in the Singularity Black coating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A dress covered in the Singularity Black coating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

We're standing in an empty classroom on a hot July day looking at the blackest little teddy bear that we've ever seen. It's black, so black that it's hard to describe. Looking at it up close, you can start to make out the features — tiny eyes, little paws, a T-shirt that reads "My first bear."

But from just a few feet away, all the details melt away and the bear starts to look more like a bear-shaped shadow than a fluffy stuffed animal.

A stuffed bear covered with Singularity Black paint. (Meghan Kelly/WBUR)
A stuffed bear covered with Singularity Black paint. (Meghan Kelly/WBUR)

The painted bear is a work of art made at NanoLab, covered with a paint that’s competing to be the blackest black in the world.

This quest began almost five years ago when the art world marveled at British artist Anish Kapoor, who started using Vantablack — which absorbed more than 99% of light — in his paintings and sculptures.

"It's blacker than anything you can imagine," Kapoor said of the paint to the BBC after its 2014 unveiling. "It's so black you can't see it. So black is this that it's comparable — at least I can compare it — with a black hole."

But Kapoor touched off a bit of a firestorm in the art world when he bought exclusive rights to Vantablack for artwork – not letting anyone else use it. That led others to start making their own super-blacks.

Enter NanoLab, which calls its paint Singularity Black.

A plush teddy bear covered in the Singularity Black coating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A plush teddy bear covered in the Singularity Black coating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"From what we understand, where we sit, is we have the blackest available coating in the world," says Colin Preston, NanoLab’s senior research scientist. He then adds: "We are. We are the blackest paint available."

He says Singularity Black is made of billions of super tiny and hollow carbon nanotubes. Those tiny tubes work to absorb light, instead of reflecting it.

NanoLab’s resident artist Jason Chase describes it as “black cotton candy.”

"And so the air and light penetrates through all of those little tiny carbon nanotube fibers," explains Chase, "and it gets trapped in like a net, but it doesn't return. It's a loss of color. It's an absence of light."

Chase started working with NanoLab after it first unveiled Singularity Black, and uses the paint in his artwork.

He put together a little exhibit at NanoLab to show us a few examples. Up first was something small: a little black disk about the size of a coin.

Turns out, it's a penny on one side that's coated with the black paint.

"Lincoln's in there, but you just can't see him," Chase says.

Next, we check out a little box coated inside with black paint. It looks like a little black hole, so dark you can't tell where the bottom is. There were gasps as someone stuck their hand in so you could see how deep the box actually was.

A $1 bill, partially painted with the Singularity Black coating, demonstrates its ability to absorb 99% of the light when placed into a box painted with the same coating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A $1 bill, partially painted with the Singularity Black coating, demonstrates its ability to absorb 99% of the light when placed into a box painted with the same coating. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Then nearby on a mannequin sits a piece of fashion: a dress spray-painted with Singularity Black.

"What's an iconic black thing is the little black dress," Chase explains. "Every, every closet has multiple little black dresses in it" — and none more famous than the one that started the little black dress craze, Audrey Hepburn’s in the opening scene of the 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany’s."

But NanoLab’s little black dress is the blackest we’ve ever seen; it’s like a dress-shaped black void. Chase and Preston say Singularity Black takes this classic piece of fashion a step further.

"The three different people that have worn it, it's breathtaking when they've walked into the room," says Chase. "Like, you can hear a pin drop."

"That's because there's no depth, there's no contrast, there's no shape, there's no color," Preston adds. "And it's so fascinating to take something so recognizable and ubiquitous and make it a complete mystery to someone."

Unlike Kapoor's Vantablack, NanoLab's Singularity Black paint is available to the public.

(Meghan Kelly/WBUR)
(Meghan Kelly/WBUR)

But painting your bedroom walls is probably out of the question for most of us right now, as Singularity Black costs several hundred dollars for just a quart of paint.

But what about in the future?

We tell the NanoLab crew that we can almost see a high rise coated in the paint that would disappear in the night sky someday.

"Yeah. That's really, I mean, that's really what it is," replies Preston enthusiastically. "I mean, we're talking about total immersion experiences. So rooms, rides, things where you're walking in and you lose yourself."

An interactive display called “The Vanishing Point.” A disc painted with the Singularity Black coating is suspended from the ceiling by wire is placed a few feet from the wall which has a board painted with the coating as well, creating a vanishing visual effect for anyone standing between the objects. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An interactive display called “The Vanishing Point.” A disc painted with the Singularity Black coating is suspended from the ceiling by wire is placed a few feet from the wall which has a board painted with the coating as well, creating a vanishing visual effect for anyone standing between the objects. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

NanoLab originally worked with NASA to make black coatings for the insides of telescopes to help view deep-space objects and continues to look for aerospace applications.

But black isn’t NanoLab’s only focus. They also have what might be the whitest white paint available.

The company’s resident artist Chase says the new colors are changing the way he thinks of painting.

"You know, we've been grinding up dirt for 200 years and putting it into oil, and we don't have to do that," says Chase with a laugh. "These guys know how to make some really different stuff. It's an extremely fun place to be."

NanoLab says it’s constantly researching to make Singularity Black tougher, more flexible and blacker.

Which could soon lead to a whole new meaning — to use the Rolling Stone’s phrase — to “paint it black.”

This segment aired on October 24, 2019.

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