It’s Not Every Day We Get a New Blue

Nautical, mystical and the de facto shade of a number of social networks, blue is a coloration that has deep cultural cachet, whereas being almost inconceivable to search out in nature. The blues that abound in nature — a butterfly, a navy beetle, even blue eyes — are usually not natively blue, in keeping with scientists, however as an alternative are reflections of sunshine, the impression of blue.

Since antiquity, blue has been related to rarity and expense; ultramarine — a pigment initially constituted of grinding lapis lazuli, a semiprecious gemstone present in Afghan mines — was as soon as price as a lot as gold.

Today, our blues are created by chemists in labs. But that doesn’t imply creating new shades is simple or frequent.

Before 2009, when a staff of chemists at Oregon State University developed a coloration now referred to as YInMn Blue (fairly unexpectedly), it had been 200 years because the final inorganic blue pigment was created. (That one was a cobalt pigment, the chemical composition of which was found by the French chemist Louis Jacques Thénard in 1802.)

The shade was invented by Mas Subramanian, a professor of materials science at Oregon State University, who was working with a team of graduate students to develop an inorganic material that could be used for electronic devices. When a sample he had put in the furnace came out a vivid, vibrant hue of ultramarine, Dr. Subramanian said he immediately realized “the brilliant, very intense blues” were like nothing he had seen before, and would be better suited to use in paint than on pieces of technology.

“I was very curious why manganese did this because manganese is not known in pigments. So I was kind of surprised and thought maybe we made a mistake,” he said in an interview. “Then we decided to repeat the experiment.” (Manganese is used to make some black and brownish pigments but, according to Dr. Subramanian, not blue.)

The blue proved stable, but it could also be slightly altered to get variations in hue. “We decided ‘OK, this is interesting for the pigment industry,’” Dr. Subramanian said.

The name for the new blue is derived from its chemical components’ symbols on the Periodic Table of Elements: yttrium, indium and manganese.

The beauty of YInMn Blue is that it is not only able to be widely duplicated via Dr. Subramanian’s formula, but is also nontoxic, making it safer to use — and perhaps more eco-friendly too. “People think nearly everything related to the periodic table has some toxicity attached to it,” Dr. Subramanian said. “But this material so far is very stable, it doesn’t leach out in the rain or any acid conditions.”

(Cobalt, on the other hand — though a boon for 19th-century artists who had previously relied on pigments cultivated from rare, cost-prohibitive gemstones like lapis lazuli — turned out to be extremely toxic to make.)

“I know from experience that blue is a difficult color to make,” Dr. Subramanian said. “Most of the blues in nature are not real blues because they are all mostly made from the way light reflects from objects.”

Yet, together, at an extremely high temperature of 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, the chemical compounds yttrium, indium and manganese combined to create an actual blue. And unlike organic plant-based hues that are less durable over time, this chemically derived color will not change.

The Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums houses more than 2,500 pigments; YInMn Blue has recently been added and was prominently featured in a small display case on the fourth floor. Narayan Khandekar, a senior conservation scientist and director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums, has been following the development of this pigment for years, and requested some of the earliest YInMn samples to add to the collection.

When pigments hit the market, Mr. Khandekar said, he and his team immediately get to work tracking down samples “because we believe that these are things that are going to be used in artist materials in the future.” Even when YInMn was fairly new, before it was commercially available, a prototype of a tube of artists paint in the color was made by the paint company Derivan and given to the Forbes Collection.

Dr. Subramanian’s blue also made it into the collection because it is a rare example of a wholly modern pigment, in contrast to the many pigments from the Middle Ages that are housed in the collection.

“It’s kind of an amazing thing that he was able to just look at something that was an accident. And then recognize how it could be applied to something that he had no experience with whatsoever,” Mr. Khandekar said of Dr. Subramanian. “You’ve got synthetic ultramarine, which came along in 1826, but that was synthesizing an already known pigment.”

There will be naysayers — those who say they can’t see much of a difference between ultramarine and YInMn Blue. But, Dr. Subramanian said: “This is a very special discovery because this is the first time my discovery has reached to the society with so much diversity — artists, architects, the fashion industry, even the cosmetics industry. I never would have imagined my discovery would go this far.” He added: “This changed my life.”

Mr. Khandekar agreed. “It’s not often that you come along with a synthetic inorganic pigment,” he said.

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