Their Dark Materials

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
About a year ago, we released an episode in which I interviewed the author, Kassia St. Clair, about her book, ‘The Secret Lives of Color’. It was a conversation about the history and origins of different colors throughout human existence and during our talk, Kassia and I covered everything from a type of purple that’s squeezed from sea snails to a shade of green that could literally kill you. But there was one pigment in particular from that episode that one of our producers here at 99PI hasn’t been able to stop thinking about.

Vivian Le:
Because it’s bonkers.

Roman Mars:
Producer Vivian Le.

Vivian Le:
It’s called Vantablack and it’s a pigment that reaches the level of darkness that’s so intense, it’s kind of upsetting. It’s so black, it’s like looking at a hole cut out of the universe. It’s so black, it’s like looking at a portal into another dimension of nothingness. It’s so black that if you stare at it long enough, you’ll see your own death.

Vivian Le:
I could keep going.

Adam Rogers:
These metaphors are crumby, but it’s like this philosophical abyss. Your eyes just fall into it.

Vivian Le:
This is Adam Rogers.

Adam Rogers:
I’m a journalist, I’m a writer at Wired and I write books sometimes too.

Roman Mars:
Rogers has written about Vantablack for Wired because when anyone sees it, not just Vivian, they think it’s bonkers. It makes you rethink what black means.

Adam Rogers:
Vantablack is striking when you look at it. Even when you look at a picture of it because it looks not like something is colored black. It looks like an absence.

Vivian Le:
Vantablack swallows nearly all visible light and gives back no reflection. So every contour or crease of whatever it’s applied to disappears. It has this odd effect of making something look two-dimensional while at the same time as if you could fall right through it.

Adam Rogers:
It has the same feeling – looking at it as a color – that looking over the edge of a building or something does. You actually do feel kind of a physiological response to it like, that does not look right. That looks unreal. It looks unreal.

Roman Mars:
Vantablack was created by the tech industry for the tech industry, but this strange dark material would actually go on to turn the art world on its head.

Vivian Le:
There are black pigments out there and then there are super-black pigments that are so dark, they need to be created in a laboratory. These super-blacks reach such extreme levels of darkness because they’re made up of something called carbon nanotubes or CNTs.

Roman Mars:
Carbon nanotubes are pretty much exactly what they sound like. Teeny tiny microscopic tubes comprised of carbon atoms, just a few nanometers wide. For reference, a single human hair is about 80 to 100,000 nanometers wide.

Vivian Le:
CNT materials are made up of forests of these microscopic carbon tubes.

Ben Jensen:
I’d say it’s like a field of grass. And the grass is a carbon nanotube and about 1/6,000th the thickness of your hair, and there’s about a billion of them per square centimeter.

Vivian Le:
This is Ben Jensen, the found and CTO of Surrey Nanosystems, which specializes in carbon nanotube technology. He’s the kind of person who, even as a kid, you’d expect to become the founder and CTO of a carbon nanotube technology company.

Ben Jensen:
When I went through school, I spent my time trying to make gunpowder type rockets and then I kind of went to develop liquid-propellant systems that were rather dangerous and used to go bang and kind of not very safe. Back then, people didn’t really care that much about safety and they would go, “Yeah, yeah, this sounds like a really cool idea.”

Roman Mars:
Kids, this is not a really cool idea.

Vivian Le:
Jensen began working in the nanomaterials field in 2004. Back then, CNTs had a lot of promise in the space industry because super-black coatings could be really useful inside of satellites, telescopes, and optical imaging technology.

Roman Mars:
But carbon nanotube technology wasn’t quite where it needed to be yet. CNTs weren’t like paint. They had to be grown onto a surface in a special type of reactor at an absurdly high temperature. High enough to destroy most of the things you might want to grow them on.

Vivian Le:
Jensen and his team worked on it for years and finally managed to develop a new reactor that allowed them to grow CNTs at a much lower temperature. And in doing so, they had one unexpected but delightful side effect. They made it blacker.

Ben Jensen:
One day we got some data back and I said, “Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve grown this material and it’s got almost unmeasurable low reflectance.” And I was, “Okay. What does that mean?”

Roman Mars:
It meant that Surrey Nanosystems had created the darkest substance on earth. A material that absorbed 99.965% of light.

Vivian Le:
He couldn’t tell from the numbers, but Jensen knew the CNT was really special after one of his researchers showed him a sample.

Ben Jensen:
And he said, “Look.” And I’m like, “Okay, what am I looking at? It just looks black.” And he said, “No, no, look.” And I’m putting my face right up beside it and the guy is looking and laughing at me and I’m going, “Hey, it just looks black.” And then he did something that just told me we had nailed it. He took an object off the surface that was three-dimensional, so I could then see it. Before, no matter how close I put my eyes to it, I couldn’t tell there was anything there. It was just flat.

Vivian Le:
Vantablack was so dark that it almost felt like it defied the laws of physics.

Ben Jensen:
We weren’t looking to create the world’s blackest material. That wasn’t our thing.

Vivian Le:
Jensen and his team decided to give this new flashy CNT of flashy name, Vantablack.

Roman Mars:
Which stands for Vertically Aligned Nano Tube Array Black.

Vivian Le:
As black as Vantablack was, Surrey Nanosystems still saw it as a niche material. So when they launched their product at the Farnborough Airshow in 2014, they saw themselves as small fry. Farnborough is a big deal in the aerospace industry. Surrey Nanosystems was presenting their nano material at the same event as the Boeing Dreamliner, military jets and a paragliding car, so Jensen wasn’t expecting to make much of a splash.

Roman Mars:
But that’s not what actually happened.

Ben Jensen:
It was just surreal. We had camera crews from literally all the major networks there filming. Looking at these materials because no one had ever seen anything demonstrated like this before.

Vivian Le:
People were freaking out over Vantablack.

Ben Jensen:
We just didn’t expect it and my scientist was like, “Well, it’s just black. Why are we getting all these people going crazy about it?”

Roman Mars:
People were amazed by the depth of darkness achieved by Vantablack and wanted to know more. Soon enough, Surrey Nanosystems was receiving all sorts of requests from people who wanted a piece of it.

Ben Jensen:
People wanting to coat their cars in it. People wanting to coat dice in it, coat their bodies in it. We had a very well known YouTuber that spent quite a while asking us saying, can he please eat it live on YouTube?

Roman Mars:
Aside from that Tidepod-eating bleep-ing idiot, what really caught Jensen’s attention was the amount of interest that came from another field in desperate need of a super-black pigment. The art world.

Vivian Le:
In those first couple of weeks alone, Surrey Nanosystems received over 400 inquiries from artists wanting to use it in their work.

Ben Jensen:
The number of people in the art world that wanted to use it, that was absolutely quite a crazy time actually because we’re a company that’s set up to do engineering and space, not a company that’s set up to create products for artists to use.

Vivian Le:
Working with artists was just not something Surrey Nanosystems was equipped to do because Vantablack was incredibly hard to work with. Sure, they could grow it at a much lower temperature than before, but that was still about 430 degrees centigrade. CNTs were also really delicate and could scrape off easily.

Roman Mars:
But most importantly, any collaboration with artists would take up time and tech resources because anything coated with Vantablack would have to be grown in Surrey Nanosystems reactors.

Ben Jensen:
It just wasn’t a practical proposition for the company. That said, Anish is an incredibly charismatic chap with an amazing vision and his life’s work has just been phenomenal.

Roman Mars:
Anish as in Anish Kapoor, who, if you haven’t heard of him before, is very famous.

Adam Rogers:
So Anish Kapoor, for decades has been one of the premier contemporary artists working today.

Vivian Le:
This is Adam Rogers again.

Adam Rogers:
He’s the kind of person who will do like a whole gallery takeover at the Tate Modern. He’s a really big deal.

Roman Mars:
We should note here that Anish Kapoor did not respond to an interview request for this story but he’s probably best known for creating Chicago’s iconic ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture, also known as ‘The Bean’ and he has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to visual arts.

Vivian Le:
And when Vantablack debuted, he wanted it. So he reached out to Surrey Nanosystems and invited Jensen to check out his studio.

Ben Jensen:
I walked into his studio and I was literally speechless of what I saw.

Vivian Le:
Given his body of work, Kapoor seemed uniquely suited for this material.

Anish Kapoor:
“There is, in a way, a constant continuous process that gives up the same questions.”

Vivian Le:
This is Anish Kapoor in a video he released about one of his pieces titled ‘Dissension’.

Anish Kapoor:
“So those questions are, for me, the void object or the non-object. Many questions about color, questions about space and time, because I really do believe that for there to be new objects, there has to be new space.”

Vivian Le:
Kapoor has a fascination with black’s capacity to make something both exist and not exist at the same time.

Adam Rogers:
His work, a lot of it, deals with voids, deals with color blocks and voids. Tries to understand the relationship between color and space.

Vivian Le:
One art installation titled, ‘Descent into Limbo’ is just a giant black hole in the ground that looks like it plummets into oblivion.

Adam Rogers:
There was a circle on the floor that was just blacker than black could possibly be. A couple of years ago, somebody actually fell into it.

News Report:
“Now to the Italian man who found out the hard way that a very realistic looking painting of a black hole was in fact, an actual black hole. Fortunately, the man who tested the art out is going to be okay. He’s now at home recovering from a back injury.”

Roman Mars:
Surrey Nanosystems couldn’t work with 400 different artists, but they could work with one. Kapoor was the perfect choice.

Vivian Le:
They signed a contract with Kapoor stating he would be the first and only artist who would get to work with Vantablack. Surrey Nanosystems already had all sorts of exclusive licenses with contractors in the defense and space industries, so they figured an artist’s license wouldn’t be that different.

Adam Rogers:
It’s not implausible that Surrey Nanosystems thought that the deal was the same as any other deal that they would make with anybody else who wanted to use one of the things that they made, that nobody else in the world could make. That’s not crazy, but it did have consequences.

Roman Mars:
Consequences that rocked the art world.

Ben Jensen:
We had expected when we announced it was exclusive that it would limit the amount of requests we were getting because the administration staff within the company were simply bombarded and overloaded with requests from the art world.

Vivian Le:
Did that actually happen after this relationship was announced?

Ben Jensen:
Sadly not.

Vivian Le:
Once again, people were freaking out over Vantablack, but for very different reasons this time. At first, people thought that somehow Anish Kapoor had the exclusive license to the color black, which was obviously not true.

Ben Jensen:
And that created a firestorm of hatred. And I think back to that time, we were getting hate mail, death threats, all kinds of crazy stuff. You know what the Internet’s like.

Roman Mars:
Vantablack is a nanotechnology that can only be achieved using Surrey Nanosystems’ proprietary reactor and trained technicians. It is not a color. It’s a technology. They didn’t patent a shade of black that absorbs 99.965% of light. They patented a unique process and material that absorbed 99.965% of light. Still, a lot of people thought the technology was beside the point.

Stuart Semple:
So we’re talking about ownership of no light. So how can someone own no light?

Vivian Le:
This is Stuart Semple. An artist based in Bournemouth, in the UK.

Stuart Semple:
I understood quite quickly how elaborate it was to use the stuff. But that didn’t change how I felt about this exclusive arrangement they attached.

Vivian Le:
Initially Stuart was really excited when he first heard about Vantablack, even though he wasn’t sure what he would make with it.

Stuart Semple:
I wasn’t really thinking about how I would use it. I was initially just in awe of the stuff itself. I hadn’t really got ideas because, by the time I’d had a chance to hatch an idea for it, it turned out that Anish Kapoor had the rights to it and everything else.

Vivian Le:
Stewart actually doesn’t blame Surrey Nanosystems for choosing to work with Anish Kapoor. They came from the world of tech and had a completely different mindset.

Roman Mars:
The object of his frustration was Anish Kapoor. Stuart thinks morally, as an artist, Kapoor should have known better than to try to keep Vantablack exclusively for himself.

Vivian Le:
Historically and presently, so much of art has been dependent on new technology. From oil paints to photography to video, art evolves with whatever’s technologically possible. So the fact that this new material was purposefully being withheld from the rest of the artistic community ruffled a lot of feathers, including Stuart Semple’s.

Stuart Semple:
It just smacked of complete art world elitism and the power to dominate things if you’ve got money and stature.

Vivian Le:
Although Ben Jensen from Surrey Nanosystems is quick to point out that artists being protective of technology isn’t actually a new thing in the art world. Artists have been creating their own oil paints since the Renaissance and they were under no obligation to share their material with their competitors.

Ben Jensen:
Today, people feel if something exists, they have an automatic right to it. So because we curated this material, everybody has an automatic right to it. The reality is the world has never been like that. You go back to when Turner was creating his blacks and you go up to him and say, “Hey, you created an amazing black, I want it.” You would have been laughed out of the art scene.

Roman Mars:
But Semple sees it a different way. Regardless of what Renaissance artists did, he believes that sharing knowledge and technology can only move the arts community forward.

Vivian Le:
Which is why he actually felt a little hypocritical. Stuart had been mixing his own paints and pigments for years to use in his own artwork and he realized he wasn’t practicing what he preached: sharing.

Stuart Semple:
I was no better than him because I’d been making these awesome colors and just using them for myself. I’ve been hoarding them for my own work. I wasn’t sharing them.

Vivian Le:
Stuart had a bunch of pigments that he created himself: the Greenest Green, the Pinkest Pink, the Glitteriest Glitter. You get the idea. And it occurred to him that he could kill two birds with one stone. He could share his colors with his artistic peers and poke a little fun at Anish Kapoor’s exclusive license to Vantablack.

Stuart Semple:
So I thought what I’ll do is I’ll share my Pinkest Pink that I made with the whole world and put it on the internet as a joke, as a piece of performance art, if you like. To use the internet as a space for debate and dialogue.

Roman Mars:
With one caveat, everyone in the world could use this new color except Anish Kapoor.

Stuart Semple:
I would ban Anish Kapoor from using my pink.

Vivian Le:
Stuart put one of his colors, the Pinkest Pink up for sale on his website with a very specific purchasing agreement.

Stuart Semple:
So to buy the Pinkest Pink, you have to agree to legal terms and conditions on the website when you add it to your cart and they are that you’re not Anish Kapoor, you’re in no way associated or affiliated to Anish Kapoor and the best of your knowledge, information and belief, the paint won’t make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.

Roman Mars:
The move was part joke, part performance art. He figured a few of his friends would buy some and they’d have a good laugh about it, but he ended up selling tens of thousands of jars of the Pinkest Pink, each one a tiny middle finger to Kapoor.

Vivian Le:
And things escalated quickly from there.

Adam Rogers:
Kapoor comes back, posts a picture of him giving the middle finger to the camera with his finger coated in this pink, in Semple’s pink.

Vivian Le:
Adam Rogers, again. Anish Kapoor had somehow managed to get around Stuart’s ironclad user agreement and posted a picture to his Instagram account of his actual middle finger covered in the Pinkest Pink.

Adam Rogers:
So this is like teenagers fighting. Like they’re having a fight on social media.

Stuart Semple:
I didn’t think it was actually Anish Kapoor, so I just thought it was someone having a joke. But then when I realized it was him, I was like, ‘oh my God, that’s really, really bad’.

Roman Mars:
It was bad, but it was also kind of good for Stuart. He got one of the most prominent artists in the industry to publicly flip him the bird, and now he had the internet on his side.

Adam Rogers:
The rest of the artistic community in thousands and thousands comments was like ‘F you right back, buddy’.

Vivian Le:
Commenters piled onto Anish Kapoor’s Instagram post telling him to #sharetheblack. Stuart suddenly found himself with an army of open source art defenders behind him and he was ready to mount a full scale attack.

Adam Rogers:
And Stuart captured that vibe. He thought, well, okay, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I’m going to make a better black.

Roman Mars:
So he decided to beat Kapoor at his own game and create a super-black paint that could rival Vantablack. It took years of development and multiple iterations and an entire community of crowdsourced artist feedback to develop the formula for something that he calls ‘Black 3’.

Stuart Semple:
Growing in the cosmetics industry we used what we call matifiers. So we borrowed some of that technology and then we reformulated the binder to make it really open and really wide, so we could cram loads of this black pigment in there, which makes this really super-black, almost like velvet thing.

Vivian Le:
Black 3 doesn’t trap as much light as Vantablack, but it’s still pretty dark.

Adam Rogers:
You can imagine what it’s like in the Justice League to stand next to Superman. Well, I don’t have that many superpowers, but I have some superpowers.

Vivian Le:
You’re still very strong.

Adam Rogers:
Yeah, he’s still very strong. Exactly.

Roman Mars:
Black 3 is like Aquaman. It’s fine.

Vivian Le:
Stuart made sure it was an acrylic paint because any painter would be able to easily work with it. It’s also affordable so that artists can actually buy it. And lastly-

Stuart Semple:
You can’t buy Black 3 if you’re Anish Kapoor. If you’re associated with Anish Kapoor or to the best of your knowledge, information and belief, it’s going to make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.

Roman Mars:
Anish Kapoor wouldn’t be painting with Black 3 anytime soon. But as it turns out, neither would Stuart Semple.

Stuart Semple:
Do you know, it’s too black for my work. I can’t use it. It’s too black. The minute you put it on a painting, it just dominates everything.

Vivian Le:
After all the feuding, research and development, and sheer painstaking work that went into creating one of the world’s blackest blacks, Stuart doesn’t use it. And oddly enough, Anish Kapoor, the person who set off this whole controversy in the first place, hasn’t used his blackest black very much either. A few years back, he released a limited edition $98,000 Vantablack watch, but that’s about it.

Roman Mars:
Neither Semple nor Kapoor had much use in having the darkest pigment in the world. But there was one artist who actually did.

Diemut Strebe:
“Hello?”

Vivian Le:
“Hi, is this Diemut?”

Diemut Strebe:
“That’s me. Hello. So nice to talk to you.”

Vivian Le:
Diemut Strebe works at the intersection of art and science. And recently she came out of nowhere with a black pigment that rendered the entire feud between Kapoor and Simple, pretty much meaningless and the best part is, she didn’t even mean to.

Diemut Strebe:
My artwork in this setting really triggered a scientific discovery, which is unusual in these times. Usually artistic work would not trigger a scientific paper, but in this case it was. It really came out of the arts and I thought this was really cool.

Roman Mars:
In 2019, Strebe released a work called, ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ in which she coated a $2 million diamond in a new nanotube material developed with MIT’s Necstlab. It’s a critique of material value because the diamond’s value, is visually speaking, reduced to nothing.

Diemut Strebe:
Diamond and carbon nanotubes are two forms of carbon atoms in a different order. That means that you have the most brightest material and the most blackest material basically generated from the same element.

Roman Mars:
This new carbon nanotube material created for Strebe actually unseated Vantablack as the new blackest material in the world. It traps an astronomical 99.995% of light as compared to Vantablack’s 99.965%.

Vivian Le:
Which is ironic because the only reason she developed a blacker black than Anish Kapoor’s is because of Anish Kapoor. Had it not been for the exclusive license with Kapoor, MIT and Strebe’s new record-breaking material might not exist. By choosing not to work with other artists, Surrey Nanosystems unintentionally inspired a rival super-black material that beat their record.

Roman Mars:
But Strebe says she wasn’t trying to one up Surrey Nanosystems or make a statement to Anish Kapoor. If anything, she was just trying to move past the bickering and create art.

Diemut Strebe:
I like art to be free and speak through its conceptual powers and aesthetics. I’m not interested in raising the moral fingertip to Anish Kapoor or anybody else.

Vivian Le:
Anish Kapoor still has the exclusive rights to use Vantablack in his artwork and it’s unclear whether he’s planning on releasing any future pieces using the material. Actually, his most recent exhibition couldn’t be any further away from black. It’s a series of mirrored sculptures that are almost impossibly reflective.

Roman Mars:
These days Stuart Semple has a new giant to slay. He’s taken on T-Mobile. The company has been sending cease and desists to small businesses using a similar shade to their trademark pink. So in protest, he’s released a new pigment that he calls, ‘Pink TM’. It’s an exact color match to T-Mobile’s and it’s available to anyone unless they are in any way affiliated with T-Mobile.

Vivian Le:
Ben Jensen is still at Surrey Nanosystems developing newer iterations of Vantablack that are not exclusive to any artist, but he seemed a little hesitant to work with artists again.

Ben Jensen:
I just recognize that as a company, our focus is not the business of art.

Roman Mars:
He seems pretty content to return to his humble childhood ambitions of blasting super cool things into space.

Ben Jensen:
Personally, I love the space business. I just absolutely love it. Like I said, I started as a young kid trying to build space rockets and today we have materials that we create orbiting the earth. And I cannot tell you how that makes me feel. You know, this little kid that was looking at the moon on dark nights saying, ‘God I want to send something up to space,’ to today, we actually send stuff into space.

Vivian Le:
As for the black that came out of MIT, Diemut Strebe knows that this isn’t going to be the end all be all for the world’s darkest pigment. Another material will eventually come along and end their reign as the blackest black. But what’s important to Strebe and Necstlab isn’t that their material’s the darkest, but that it’s available to the rest of the art world. So for now, the blackest black is open to any artist to use, including Anish Kapoor.

Roman Mars:
What’s the opposite of Vantablack? Vantawhite. Actually, that’s not the answer, but we do have a story about a color pigment that is so desirable, it was at the center of a case of economic espionage. Adam Rogers comes back to tell me that story after the break.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
One of the big takeaways of the Vantablack story is that there is color all around us, but we don’t really put a lot of thought into the process of creating it. Journalist Adam Rogers, who we heard from in the Vantablack story and who is writing a whole book about colors, came into the studio to talk to me about the technology behind another pigment that was so sought after that it was at the center of an FBI investigation. You may not have heard of it before, but chances are you haven’t gone a day, maybe haven’t even gone an hour, without coming into contact with it.

Adam Rogers:
It is titanium dioxide. The coolest thing about titanium dioxide is that everyone interacts with it all the time. Because it is, primarily, it’s the thing that makes almost every human-made thing white, white. It’ll confer an almost platonic principle of whiteness to things. It’ll convey opacity and brightness as well, so you find it in other colors. Other pigments. House paints will be like 40% titanium dioxide, no matter what color they are, even if they’re red. But titanium dioxide’s in a bunch of different colors as well as being like in a tube of titanium white oil paint that you would buy if you get the real stuff.

Adam Rogers:
There was a story that, it may be apocryphal, during the Cold War, the west had more access to titanium dioxide then Russia. So you were supposed to be able to see, one of the reasons that the like behind the Berlin Wall, things looked kind of dingy and dim and not as saturated, was that their paints, as they got old, they would show through more. They didn’t have as much titanium dioxide or they weren’t using titanium dioxide, but the west was. So when you would walk through the Brandenburg Gate in the west, it would be all bright and beautiful and there was more color. It was because of that. That may be apocryphal, but I love the story so much that-

Roman Mars:
It works for me.

Adam Rogers:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
And it’s even in food, right?

Adam Rogers:
Yeah. A lot of food, especially things like Oreo filling, I think they don’t use it anymore. Something like a lifesaver or like sprinkles on cupcakes. A lot of titanium dioxide in those. Pharmaceuticals, pills, like almost every pill, if you have pills in your medicine cabinet, a lot of it in that. Shaving cream, for sure, shaving cream is a big one. The porcelains, the things that if you walk around your kitchen and your bathroom, a lot of those surfaces and a lot of the small objects are, you will see TiO2 on that ingredient label.

Roman Mars:
How was titanium dioxide discovered?

Adam Rogers:
Well, titanium was actually discovered that the element, very common, ninth most common element in the Earth’s crust, discovered in the leat of a mill. That’s the little, the stream that you sort of cut the side channel from a river to go through a mill. Nobody knew what to do with it. Nobody knew what it was for. But in the late 1800s, an engineer named AJ Rossi was playing with it because he had encountered it trying to make steel from the iron-bearing oars of the Adirondacks. Nobody knew if you could use it to make that steel better. He started a company and thought he could. And to do it, he needed a lot of power to make the furnaces hot enough to make this work. So he went to what was sort of the Silicon Valley of the late 1800s, early 1900s, which was Niagara Falls.

Roman Mars:
Because of all the power.

Adam Rogers:
Because of all the power.

Roman Mars:
Right. Okay. So the hydroelectric power.

Adam Rogers:
Right. So he was doing electrochemistry.

Roman Mars:
Oh cool.

Adam Rogers:
And this is the place where like union carbide started. If you wanted to do this weird magical chemistry that needed a lot of power, you could crack open minerals, crack open oars and mix them together in new weird ways. So there were all these companies that started up in Niagara Falls. His was one of them. But at one point in the process, one of the byproducts of the process was titanium dioxide would precipitate out as this beautiful, bright white powder. And Rossi was smart enough to know that there was a huge demand at that moment for something to replace what was the classic brightener – opacifier – in white pigment since antiquity. Which was lead.

Roman Mars:
They were starting to discover the shortcomings of lead.

Adam Rogers:
Yes.

Roman Mars:
Yes. But he sees this white-

Adam Rogers:
He sees the white-

Roman Mars:
… and he goes, “Oh, I know what this could do potentially.”

Adam Rogers:
And he mixes it with salad oil. And he puts his finger in it, runs it across a piece of paper. It’s this beautiful white, and he says, “Ah-ha, I got it. I got it.” And he starts a company. It gets sort of a suspended by World War I, but once that’s over, he’s the only guy in town. The Norwegians come up with a process too. And now there’s this way to make titanium dioxide and it becomes ubiquitous in human industry.

Adam Rogers:
How big of an industry is titanium dioxide?

Adam Rogers:
It varies, but I think right now it’s like a $4 billion a year industry and I forget the amounts. It’s some hundreds of two TEU cargo units a year. But that doesn’t seem like a lot if you know how much cash Apple has on hand or something. But minute amounts of it are in everything that we touch every day, almost everything that we touch every day. And so to me that makes it one of those invisible pieces of things that we touch that makes the world look the way it does.

Roman Mars:
Since it was discovered, there have been these various methods to make it. Tell me about that.

Adam Rogers:
The process that Rossi figured out and the one that was in place really until a little before World War II, was called the sulfide process. It’s really gross. It’s really dirty, it requires sulfuric acid, and it requires a fairly pure ore to turn into titanium dioxide and it’s not very efficient. So in the ’30s, a chemist named Paul Kubelka figured out a way to use hydrochloric acid. So the chloride process was born. A complicated industrial process that uses really big factories that look like steampunk kind of star destroyers, they’re fantastic. I got to visit one. They’re amazing. He figures that out. That process becomes de facto. You can use kind of dirtier ores and it’s more efficient. It’s a better way to make the stuff. And through various waves of acquisitions and purchases, this becomes the property of DuPont. So DuPont becomes the main purveyor of the chloride process, titanium dioxide for the world essentially. And that becomes sort of a de facto standard.

Roman Mars:
So there’s continual evolution of how to make better and cleaner titanium dioxide. And this eventually leads to a big intellectual property case. So tell me about that and how that got started.

Adam Rogers:
So in like the mid-2000s, DuPont goes to the FBI and says, listen, we’re pretty sure somebody has stolen our chloride process for making titanium dioxide. We’re pretty sure we know who, we’re pretty sure we know who he’s selling it to. The FBI, which has just started not by coincidence, an economic espionage office in Silicon Valley because Congress has just passed the First Economic Espionage Act, essentially because they are worried about the same thing DuPont is, which is that China is trying to take IP from American companies.

Roman Mars:
I see. Okay.

Adam Rogers:
So DuPont goes to the FBI and says, we are pretty sure that this dude named Walter Liew is selling our chloride process for building factories, for making ore into titanium dioxide to the Chinese government.

Roman Mars:
And how did Walter Liew get his hands on the DuPont method?

Adam Rogers:
Walter Liew, according to later trial documents, just spoil that a little bit, found his way to a state dinner in China where he had kind of promised that he knew how to make stuff that was on a literal list that the Chinese government had said, ‘gosh, we’d sure like it if somebody could teach us how to do this stuff for Chinese industrial reasons. That’d be great,’ and they kind of showed him the list and he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally can make you guys titanium dioxide.” With his buddy sort of nudge him going like, “Walter, we don’t know how to make titanium dioxide.” He was like, “It’s fine, we’re good, it’s fine.”

Adam Rogers:
And what Liew eventually ended up doing, what the FBI eventually understood Liew to end up doing, was finding a couple of this is more disrespectful than I’m meaning to sound, but essentially finding a couple of disgruntled ex-DuPont employees, engineers who had helped develop and deploy the chloride process factories that DuPont could build in the US and other countries. Who had left the company unhappy and with their boxes of stuff. And with those, Liew started in the Mission, San Francisco, started a little storefront office where he’d like processed that information and sold it to the Chinese.

Roman Mars:
How does DuPont figure this out? And then how does the FBI start to stitch together the case?

Adam Rogers:
DuPont was cagey with how they figured it out. Even with the FBI. Or the FBI was cagey with me about how DuPont had told them. They figured DuPont has its own internal security. They’re very worried about this kind of stuff but they found out somehow and they said to the FBI, we think it’s this guy. And the FBI started surveillance and looked into both the people who Liew was working with on the east coast in Delaware, his office here, and eventually got enough evidence to say we are pretty sure that he’s the guy and we’re pretty sure that he’s about to have a meeting with his Chinese contacts on given day. And we’re pretty sure that they’re staying in a crummy hotel in Alameda. And they, in conjunction with a relatively new US attorney in San Francisco who really wanted to get some action out of this office, figured out how to mount a bi-coastal multi-place exercise search warrants on everybody all at once, hundreds of agents deployed.

Roman Mars:
And I mean, is this the first case sort of executed in the Espionage Act?

Adam Rogers:
Yeah. It was the first case prosecuted under the Economic Espionage Act.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And then, so what was the result? Was he convicted?

Adam Rogers:
He was convicted and is still in prison. They never found the money. The money that the Chinese government turned out had paid Walter and his family. And China has an active chloride process, titanium dioxide processing business now. Because they had this kind of crummier ore, and no way to make it into titanium dioxide. And now they do.

Roman Mars:
Because of Walter Liew.

Adam Rogers:
Perhaps.

Roman Mars:
Perhaps. Or maybe they figured it out on their own.

Adam Rogers:
Maybe. And yes, for a pigment, for a color. To be able to make a color.

Roman Mars:
And I just love the whole premise of the Vantablack story and this story. What I love about it is the idea of color as technology. I think that’s a strange notion to people.

Adam Rogers:
I think it’s a strange notion too. But let me ‘yes and’ you.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Adam Rogers:
It’s always been technology.

Roman Mars:
Sure.

Adam Rogers:
There’s the experience that a living thing will have of a colored world, of a world of color. Because a lot of the things that are alive on the planet have ways of interacting with the physics of the electromagnetic spectrum that include the part of it that we call visible. Because for us it’s the visible part. But there’s a moment in human history where we take, it’s probably iron ore, it’s probably ochre, right? Take this rock, crunch it up, mix it with trabecular fat from some animal’s backbone and smear it a home K wall or smear it on a thing that we make, not just to protect it against mosquitoes, which is possibly a thing that it does, not just to glue together the heft of an ax, which is another thing that may be ochre pulp does, to make a design. To evoke something. Probably red, although it might’ve been black and it might’ve been white. Whites the thing that doesn’t last as long as others. So it’s hard to know. And at that moment, our interaction with the colored universe becomes one of technic as well. It becomes a technological interaction.

Credits

Production

Producer Vivian Le spoke with Adam Rogers, Journalist and Senior Correspondent at Wired; Ben Jensen, Founder and CTO of Surrey Nanosystems; Stuart Semple, artist; and Diemut Strebe, artist.

  1. Martha Lucas

    Such a faciniating episode, thank you! Does anyone know the process that was used to apply the MIT nanotube material to the diamond?

  2. Kerry

    Yet another competing super-black coating appeared on Kickstarter a few months back, product name Singularity 2. Got funded, product shipping now supposedly. Not sure what, if any, involvement they have with the cast of characters in this story.

  3. William

    You should check out nano-lab.com, another company providing paint that is equivalent to vantablack. You can buy some, it’s open for everyone.

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