Discovering What’s Next: Accidental Innovation

Some of the greatest discoveries in human history have happened by accident. Whether the result is penicillin or Play-Doh, the microwave or the Slinky, many curious minds have stumbled across products that have impacted (and sometimes even saved) our lives. 

One of the challenges of innovation and leadership, as we recently discussed on our blog, is recognizing “what’s next” when we see it. Too often, our pursuit of a specific result keeps us from recognizing something brilliant that happens along the path. Let’s take a look at a recent accidental innovation that probably won’t change the world, but might change how we value the process of discovery.

The Blackest Black

A few years ago, the art world was fascinated by the unveiling of Vantablack – the “blackest black” ever created. Originally developed to help satellites create the clearest possible picture of light in deep space, this color is actually the result of nanotechnology. Carbon nanotubes are grown in a vertical “forest” just a few nanometers thick, which “absorbs up to 99.964% of light striking it.”

While Vantablack wasn’t created with visual art in mind, artists immediately began seeking it out and fighting about who would have access to the “blackest black” pigment on the planet. Marketers got into the act, too – Lynx Body Spray and BMW secured Vantablack for campaigns aimed at wowing consumers with its deep, light-obliterating absence of color.

But now Vantablack has been outdone. Recently, MIT scientists working in the school’s materials engineering lab discovered a black material that is “technically 10 times darker than any other known black substance, a full order of magnitude darker than the blackest black we know.” What’s most shocking about this discovery is that they weren’t even trying to create a blackest black – their discovery was a complete accident!

Accidental Innovation

Brian Wardle, an MIT professor of Aeronautics, was working with his team to grow carbon nanotubes on aluminum foil. The goal was to “increase the material’s thermal and electrical conductivity” for use in electronics and microprocessors. Wardle’s team set about removing the aluminum’s oxide layer using salt water and then baking the aluminum in an oxygen-free oven alongside a source of carbon. The result was a material that was very black, but that wasn’t surprising or notable to the scientists, who were used to the color of the carbon nanotubes.

What set this particular team apart from others was the presence of an artist, Diemut Strebe, who was intrigued by the optical properties of the nanotubes. Strebe was the team member who encouraged the color-testing of the material, which turned out to absorb a record-shattering 99.995 percent of visible light. “It’s pretty interesting that the artist in my group influenced the science… without that collaboration, we wouldn’t have looked,” Wardle notes in Fast Company.

Strebe and Wardle went on to create a piece of art using their accidental discovery. It’s a 16.78-carat yellow diamond (the most reflective material on earth) valued at $2 million, covered in the blackest black to become a gem that absorbs all light.

Stay Curious

While not every scientific or development team contains an artist, the lesson from MIT’s accidental innovation is simple: be curious, and be open to the value of unexpected discoveries. We can’t always predetermine the results of our actions, processes, or experiments. What we can do is remain aware of the possibilities of innovation that are unfolding in front of us. Who knows what breakthrough might occur next?

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