What’s Blacker Than Black? Asif Khan’s Super-Black Olympic Pavilion

A unique material that absorbs 99 percent of light was used to create a pavilion for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Attendees at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics were surrounded by white, blinding snow; bright, vivid colors representing 92 countries; and the complete absence of color—or rather a 99 percent absence of light. British architect Asif Khan was the creative force behind an Olympic pavilion that can claim to be the first of its kind: a super-black building.

Commissioned by Hyundai Motor Company, the 13,000-square-foot pavilion Khan designed was made with the vision of creating a window cut into space.

“From a distance the structure has the appearance of a window looking into the depths of outer space,” Khan stated in a press release. “As you approach it, this impression grows to fill your entire field of view. So, on entering the building, it feels as though you are being absorbed into a cloud of blackness.”

Khan’s vision was made possible by spraying the building’s 33-foot-tall facades with Vantablack VBx2, a super-black material that absorbs almost all the light that hits its surface, creating the illusion of a void. Khan then used thousands of small white lights on rods to complete his out-of-this world vision.

The Hyundai Pavilion coated in a super-black material. (Image courtesy of Hyundai.)

The Hyundai Pavilion coated in a super-black material. (Image courtesy of Hyundai.)

What exactly is this fascinating material? Developed by Surrey NanoSystems, Vantablack has been referred to as the blackest black, the darkest material ever made and super-black. The material can claim all these nicknames due to the unique properties of its carbon nanotube (CNT) design, which allow it to absorb 99.965 percent of visible radiation.

Although the CNTs make up only about .05 percent of the pavilion’s coating, their size, pattern and spacing allows light (raditation) to enter free space between them. The radiation bounces around the CNTs until it is eventually absorbed and converted to heat. Although most observers don’t see it, a miniscule amount of light does reach the end of the CNTs and is then reflected back to them.

The original Vantablack is applied as a thin layer of CNTs that “grow” on the surface of an object. Due to this unique process, Surrey NanoSystems can “grow” CNTs at lower temperatures, making it possible to apply the coating on various materials, including aluminum, copper, nickel, quartz, silicon, stainless steel and titanium. The product has since been expanded to include sprayable forms: Vantablack S-VIS, Vantablack S-IR and Vantablack VBx. The latter, which was used on the Olympic pavilion, was created with the design and architecture world in mind. It is geared toward visible spectrum applications to provide designers with a creative tool that is free from the constraints of less-than-black blacks.

Besides the artistic value of creating space on Earth, Vantablack—in all its forms—has many potential benefits. Besides its aesthetics, optically the coating could offer benefits to space exploration. A coated probe or telescope would no longer be washed in light while it explores the dark side of the moon or other cosmic area. While its amazing light absorption capabilities are out of this world, some of its other properties have the potential to have an impact on products used both on Earth and in space. It is highly water repellant and shock resistant, and offers excellent thermal conductivity.

While each of us can dream of potential uses for this incredibly black material, only a luck few verified companies, research facilities and educational establishments can order a sample of Vantablack. The rest of us will have to settle for the black shown on a basic color wheel.