“Darkest” Art in the World

by Michael Mullaney on March 11, 2009

An email we received yesterday is the catalyst for this post. It’s an amusing glimpse into the (sometimes adventurous) world of science communications, and it affords the opportunity to write about some amazing research that we publicized last year.

Yesterday we were contacted via email by a New York City artist who wanted to “do a few paintings using the blackest black paint.” He referenced the widely traveled Rensselaer news release, from early 2008, about Professor Shawn Lin developing the world’s darkest material – an antireflective coating that absorbs 99.955 percent of all light shone upon it.

That’s dark stuff, with some impressive, important implications for boosting the absorption and effectiveness of solar energy harvesting. The story, when we first released it, was widely reported upon by several outlets, including an excellent piece by former Washington Post science scribe Rick Weiss.

This release, more than any news story at Rensselaer (with the possible exception of the paper battery story) has generated an incredible amount of interest and a steady torrent of letters, phone calls, and emails with inquiries about Professor Lin’s darkest manmade material. The follow-up news release, about an adaptation/tweak of the darkest material for use on solar panels, also made a big splash in the media.

To this day – 14 months after the initial story hit the news wires – I still get at least one call and one email a week about Lin’s darkest material and/or solar absorption research.

The bulk of the inquiries are from folks in the solar industry who are curious about the breakthrough or a potential partnership. Other calls are from venture capitalists or entrepreneurs with licensing and/or IP availability questions. I get emails from university students, high school students, and even one middle-schooler who was doing a report on the material and had a few questions.

To date, three artists have contacted me to ask if they could purchase or have a sample of the darkest material to use in their paintings. It does sound like a natural fit, and I’m sure the resulting art would be very cool. The coating is, in general, pretty inexpensive. However, it’s important to remember that only a very little quantity of the stuff is actually applied when coating a solar cell. The applied layer is measured in nanometers – and it would take a whole lot of nanoscale layers to fill up a one-gallon paint bucket.

While the darkest material would certainly enable some very, very dark art, I’m guessing the cost of a gallon of paint derived from the material would cost on the order of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. A price tag that hefty is likely to deter even the darkest of dark-art ambitions.

A photo of a 1.4 percent NIST reflectance standard (left), a sample of the new darkest material (center), and a piece of glassy carbon (right), taken under a flash light illumination.

{ 1 comment }

Frederik De Wilde 12.04.09 at 4:10 am

Dear Michael,

Is it possible to reveal me the identity of this NY artist?

Kind regards,


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