YInMn Blue, the First Shade of Blue Discovered in 200 Years, Is Now Available for Artists

Pho­to via Ore­gon State Uni­ver­si­ty

“Col­or is part of a spec­trum, so you can’t dis­cov­er a col­or,” says Pro­fes­sor Mas Sub­ra­man­ian, a sol­id-state chemist at Ore­gon State Uni­ver­si­ty. “You can only dis­cov­er a mate­r­i­al that is a par­tic­u­lar color”—or, more pre­cise­ly, a mate­r­i­al that reflects light in such a way that we per­ceive it as a col­or. Sci­en­tif­ic mod­esty aside, Sub­ra­man­ian actu­al­ly has been cred­it­ed with dis­cov­er­ing a color—the first inor­gan­ic shade of blue in 200 years.

Named “YIn­Mn blue” —and affec­tion­ate­ly called “Mas­Blue” at Ore­gon State—the pig­men­t’s unwieldy name derives from its chem­i­cal make­up of yttri­um, indi­um, and man­ganese oxides, which togeth­er “absorbed red and green wave­lengths and reflect­ed blue wave­lengths in such a way that it came off look­ing a very bright blue,” Gabriel Rosen­berg notes at NPR. It is a blue, in fact, nev­er before seen, since it is not a nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring pig­ment, but one lit­er­al­ly cooked in a lab­o­ra­to­ry, and by acci­dent at that.

The dis­cov­ery, if we can use the word, should just­ly be cred­it­ed to Subramanian’s grad stu­dent Andrew E. Smith who, dur­ing a 2009 attempt to “man­u­fac­ture new mate­ri­als that could be used in elec­tron­ics,” heat­ed the par­tic­u­lar mix of chem­i­cals to over 2000 degrees Fahren­heit. Smith noticed “it had turned a sur­pris­ing, bright blue col­or [and] Sub­ra­man­ian knew imme­di­ate­ly it was a big deal.” Why? Because the col­or blue is a big deal.

In an impor­tant sense, col­or is some­thing humans dis­cov­ered over long peri­ods of time in which we learned to see the world in shades and hues our ances­tors could not per­ceive. “Some sci­en­tists believe that the ear­li­est humans were actu­al­ly col­or­blind,” Emma Tag­gart writes at My Mod­ern Met, “and could only rec­og­nize black, white, red, and only lat­er yel­low and green.” Blue, that is to say, didn’t exist for ear­ly humans. “With no con­cept of the col­or blue,” Tag­gart writes, “they sim­ply had no words to describe it. This is even reflect­ed in ancient lit­er­a­ture, such as Homer’s Odyssey,” with its “wine-dark sea.”

Pho­to via Ore­gon State Uni­ver­si­ty

Sea and sky only begin to assume their cur­rent col­ors some 6,000 years ago when ancient Egyp­tians began to pro­duce blue pig­ment. The first known col­or to be syn­thet­i­cal­ly pro­duced is thus called Egypt­ian blue, cre­at­ed using “ground lime­stone mixed with sand and a cop­per-con­tain­ing min­er­al, such as azu­rite or mala­chite.” Blue holds a spe­cial place in our col­or lex­i­cog­ra­phy. It is the last col­or word that devel­ops across cul­tures and one of the most dif­fi­cult col­ors to man­u­fac­ture. “Peo­ple have been look­ing for a good, durable blue col­or for a cou­ple of cen­turies,” Sub­ra­man­ian told NPR.

And so, YIn­Mn blue has become a sen­sa­tion among indus­tri­al man­u­fac­tur­ers and artists. Patent­ed in 2012 by OSU, it received approval for indus­tri­al use in 2017. That same year, Aus­tralian paint sup­pli­er Derivan released it as an acrylic paint called “Ore­gon Blue.” It has tak­en a few more years for the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to come around, but they’ve final­ly approved Yln­Mn blue for com­mer­cial use, “mak­ing it avail­able to all,” Isis Davis-Marks writes at Smith­son­ian. “Now the authen­ti­cat­ed pig­ment is avail­able for sale in paint retail­ers like Gold­en in the US.”

Pho­to via Ore­gon State Uni­ver­si­ty

The new blue solves a num­ber of prob­lems with oth­er blue pig­ments. It is non­tox­ic and not prone to fad­ing, since it “reflects heat and absorbs UV radi­a­tion.” YIn­Mn blue is “extreme­ly sta­ble, a prop­er­ty long sought in a blue pig­ment,” says Sub­ra­man­ian. It also fills “a gap in the range of col­ors,” says art sup­ply man­u­fac­tur­er Georg Kre­mer, adding, “The pure­ness of YIn­Blue is real­ly per­fect.”

Since their first, acci­den­tal col­or dis­cov­ery, “Sub­ra­man­ian and his team have expand­ed their research and have made a range of new pig­ments to include almost every col­or, from bright oranges to shades of pur­ple, turquoise and green,” notes the Ore­gon State Uni­ver­si­ty Depart­ment of Chem­istry. None have yet had the impact of the new blue. Learn much more about the unique chem­i­cal prop­er­ties of YIn­Mn blue here and see Pro­fes­sor Sub­ra­man­ian dis­cuss its dis­cov­ery in his TED talk fur­ther up.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Behold One of the Ear­li­est Known Col­or Charts: The Table of Phys­i­o­log­i­cal Col­ors (1686)

A 900-Page Pre-Pan­tone Guide to Col­or from 1692: A Com­plete Dig­i­tal Scan

Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colour, the 19th-Cen­tu­ry “Col­or Dic­tio­nary” Used by Charles Dar­win (1814)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Uncle Stabby says:

    That busi­ness about our ances­tors not being able to see col­or is pure fan­ta­sy. You men­tion the wine dark sea from Homer and then men­tion the Egyp­tians cre­at­ing blue pig­ment 3,000 years ear­li­er. Real­ly. Do your home­work. Wine dark sea is poet­ry, and trans­lat­ed poet­ry at that, not proof Homer was col­or­blind.

  • Joanna says:

    It’s a ridicu­lous assump­tion to take a poet­ic descrip­tion and then con­clude the writer couldn’t see the colour blue. This plan­et has more water than land, and the sky is a huge dome above us. I imag­ine blue has always been a colour we could see and that had great sig­nif­i­cance. How­ev­er, you don’t see it in art until peo­ple fig­ured out how to make blue pig­ment. Find some bet­ter qual­i­fied sci­en­tists and schol­ars to quote.

  • gwr says:

    I was unaware of Home­r’s descrip­tion but I do remem­ber once watch­ing the Red Sea dur­ing a storm and think­ing that it looked just like roil­ing swells of dark red wine — and I am def­i­nite­ly not col­or blind!

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