Rensselaer Research Review Spring 2008
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Presenting the World's Darkest Man-Made Material
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Shawn-Yu Lin
Shawn-Yu Lin
Professor of Physics
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Researchers at Rensselaer and Rice University have created the darkest material ever made by man. The material, a thin coating comprised of low-density arrays of loosely vertically aligned carbon nanotubes, absorbs more than 99.9 percent of light and one day could be used to boost the effectiveness and efficiency of solar energy conversion, infrared sensors, and other devices. The researchers who developed the material have applied for a Guinness World Record for their efforts.

“It is a fascinating technology, and this discovery will allow us to increase the absorption efficiency of light as well as the overall radiation-to-electricity efficiency of solar energy conservation,” said Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer and a member of the university’s Future Chips Constellation, who led the research project. “The key to this discovery was finding how to create a long, extremely porous vertically aligned carbon nanotube array with certain surface randomness, therefore minimizing reflection and maximizing absorption simultaneously.”

The research results were published in the journal Nano Letters.

Reflects Light Weakly, Absorbs Light Strongly

All materials, from paper to water, air, or plastic, reflect some amount of light. Scientists have long envisioned an ideal black material that absorbs all the colors of light while reflecting no light. So far they have been unsuccessful in engineering a material with a total reflectance of zero.

The total reflectance of conventional black paint, for example, is between 5 and 10 percent. The darkest man-made material, prior to the discovery by Lin’s group, boasted a total reflectance of 0.16 percent to 0.18 percent.

Lin’s team created a coating of low-density, vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays that are engineered to have an extremely low index of refraction and the appropriate surface randomness, further reducing its reflectivity. The end result was a material with a total reflective index of 0.045 percent — more than three times darker than the previous record, which used a film deposition of nickel-phosphorous alloy.

“The loosely packed forest of carbon nanotubes, which is full of nanoscale gaps and holes to collect and trap light, is what gives this material its unique properties,” Lin said. “Such a nanotube array not only reflects light weakly, but also absorbs light strongly. These combined features make it an ideal candidate for one day realizing a super black object.”

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“Presenting the World’s Darkest Man-Made Material”
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