NASA engineers have produced a material that absorbs on average more than 99 percent of the ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and far-infrared light that hits it — a development that promises to open new frontiers in space technology
“The reflectance tests showed that our team had extended by 50 times the range of the material’s absorption capabilities. Though other researchers are reporting near-perfect absorption levels mainly in the ultraviolet and visible, our material is darn near perfect across multiple wavelength bands, from the ultraviolet to the far infrared,” Hagopian said. “No one else has achieved this milestone yet.”
This close-up view (only about 0.03 inches wide) shows the internal structure of a carbon-nanotube coating that absorbs about 99 percent of the ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and far-infrared light that strikes it. A section of the coating, which was grown on smooth silicon, was purposely removed to show the tubes’ vertical alignment. (Credit: Stephanie Getty, NASA Goddard)
In particular, the team found that the material absorbs 99.5 percent of the light in the ultraviolet and visible, dipping to 98 percent in the longer or far-infrared bands. “The advantage over other materials is that our material is from 10 to 100 times more absorbent, depending on the specific wavelength band,” Hagopian said.
“We were a little surprised by the results,” said Goddard engineer Manuel Quijada, who co-authored the SPIE paper and carried out the reflectance tests. “We knew it was absorbent. We just didn’t think it would be this absorbent from the ultraviolet to the far infrared.”
If used in detectors and other instrument components, the technology would allow scientists to gather hard-to-obtain measurements of objects so distant in the universe that astronomers no longer can see them in visible light or those in high-contrast areas, including planets in orbit around other stars, Hagopian said. Earth scientists studying the oceans and atmosphere also would benefit. More than 90 percent of the light Earth-monitoring instruments gather comes from the atmosphere, overwhelming the faint signal they are trying to retrieve.
Currently, instrument developers apply black paint to baffles and other components to help prevent stray light from ricocheting off surfaces. However, black paints absorb only 90 percent of the light that strikes it. The effect of multiple bounces makes the coating’s overall advantage even larger, potentially resulting in hundreds of times less stray light.
In addition, black paints do not remain black when exposed to cryogenic temperatures. They take on a shiny, slightly silver quality, said Goddard scientist Ed Wollack, who is evaluating the carbon-nanotube material for use as a calibrator on far-infrared-sensing instruments that must operate in super-cold conditions to gather faint far-infrared signals emanating from objects in the very distant universe. If these instruments are not cold, thermal heat generated by the instrument and observatory, will swamp the faint infrared they are designed to collect.
Black materials also serve another important function on spacecraft instruments, particularly infrared-sensing instruments, added Goddard engineer Jim Tuttle. The blacker the material, the more heat it radiates away. In other words, super-black materials, like the carbon nanotube coating, can be used on devices that remove heat from instruments and radiate it away to deep space. This cools the instruments to lower temperatures, where they are more sensitive to faint signals.
To prevent the black paints from losing their absorption and radiative properties at long wavelengths, instrument developers currently use epoxies loaded with conductive metals to create a black coating. However, the mixture adds weight, always a concern for instrument developers. With the carbon-nanotube coating, however, the material is less dense and remains black without additives, and therefore is effective at absorbing light and removing heat. “This is a very promising material,” Wollack said. “It’s robust, lightweight, and extremely black. It is better than black paint by a long shot.”