I wanna see it painted black, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I wanna see the sun, blotted out from the sky
- The Rolling Stones, Paint It Black
For artist and technologist Frederik De Wilde, it's all about Big Data, Graphene nanotubes and the blackest black in the world.
Working with Belgian firm Melotte and NASA, De Wilde has created the blackest black titanium sculpture known to man.
An artist, researcher and guest professor at Transmedia Brussels, De Wilde is a permanent artist in residence at the University of Hasselt, and his quest began at an appropriate location; at the bottom of the ancient coal mines in Limburg.
Coal mining in Limburg, a province within the Netherlands, has been going on since the 16th century. In a number of areas, coal is often found very close to the surface. The breadth of the coal reserves in the south-east corner of Limburg was first discovered in 1870, when the wealthy Count Marchant and Ansembourg of Brussels ordered the test bores drilled near Eygelshoven. The Count found what he was after; a substantial seam of coal was struck at a depth of just 500 feet.
De Wilde, who is now a resident of Brussels, studied fine arts at St.-Lukas Brussels and sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He went on to complete his studies with a post-graduate degree in new media, arts and design at Transmedia in Brussels where he also studied software programming.
But it was while studying stateside at Rice University that the artist began seeking "blacker than black." To create a perfect black, De Wilde looked to carbon nano tubes and nanotechnology. As part of a cooperative effort with Zonhoven Melotte and NASA, he came up with NASAblck-Crcl #1, a proof of concept which lies somewhere at the intersection of art, science, technology and entrepreneurial expertise.
His demonstration project M1Ne#1 is a representation of the old mine shafts in Limburg which used advanced computer software to transform and represent the mines as a complex 3D shape and then digitally adjusted the data for 3D print technology. Both of the pieces are objects with a 3D structure so "deep black that all reflection disappears" to create an optical illusion in which his 3D objects seemingly become 2D again.
Call them a "visual black hole."
And the Melotte-NASA-De Wilde project may well have applications which go beyond their artistic merit and touch, ranging from efficient heat exchangers to better cinema projectors and invisible planes.
"The process took years," De Wilde said. "The question sounded simple: how can we create the blackest black? But the creation is a feat. At a certain point, the possibilities of paint pigments are exhausted."
He calls the ultimate output of the pieces "art as a demonstrator and a catalyst for technological innovation."
Based on geological data from the mines at Limburg (which was filtered through 3D modeling software and 3D printing technology) the underlying structure of the pieces was made from titanium and then coated with carbon nanotubes and rolled graphene.
"It's a 3D object, but you have the illusion of 2D because there is no reflection," De Wilde said. "You look, as it were, into a black hole."
The sculpture is an outgrowth of work the artist did to create Hostage, a piece by De Wilde from 2010 which used materials an estimated 144 times blacker than black.
It might seem like a relatively simple task, but it becomes clear how difficult it actually was once you've heard the artist discuss the technologies involved – Atomic Layer Deposition, carbon nanotubes, etc...
Carbon nanotubes are minute structures only a few millionths of a millimeter thick, and to make them stick on the titanium surface is no simple matter. If done incorrectly, the coating loses its "blacker than black" properties.
For their part, Melotte, a manufacturer of dentures, glasses frames and precision parts for companies like Exxon, ASML and Dupont, working with NASA and De Wilde was a revelation in itself.
Mario Fleurinck, the CEO of Melotte, has long been a standard bearer for the process of direct digital manufacturing.
"A project created in Belgium, but with the help of NASA? Beautiful," says Fleurinck. "Our paths have crossed each other at the right time. Two people thinking out of the box is where you get groundbreaking innovation."
Fleurinck thinks the results of the project might have applications in space telescopes, night vision, optical measurement technology, camera applications, solar cells, and electron microscopy.