Synthetic shades of blue have been sought after since Antiquity, with varying successes along the way. Now the world’s newest blue pigment, YInMn (so called because it’s made up of Yttrium, Indium and Manganese) was cooked up by accident by a team of chemists led by Mas Subramanian at Oregon State University in 2009. They were conducting experiments to study the electronic properties of manganese oxide, but what they got instead is a whole new pigment.
The compound was obtained by mixing manganese oxide with those other chemicals, and heating them to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. “Our work had nothing to do with looking for a pigment,” said Subramanian, who teaches materials science at OSU. “Then one day a graduate student who is working on the project was taking samples out of a very hot furnace while I was walking by, and it was blue, a very beautiful blue,” he said. “I realized immediately that something amazing had happened.
Since the initial discovery, the pigment has undergone various rounds of testing, with miraculous results that have led the university to confidently label the pigment “near-perfect.” Perfection, in this case, is judged according to two criteria: durability and safety. Cobalt blue can be carcinogenic, and Prussian blue can release cyanide. In contrast, YInMn is safe to produce, environmentally benign, and more durable than ultramarine. It remains stable at high temperatures, and won’t fade after a week in an acid bath.
Those desirable properties have quickly generated interest from artists and art conservators. So far, Subramanian has sent out samples to some local artists, but it’ll soon be in the hands of many more. The Shepherd Color Company has licensed the patent, and plans to make it widely available after further testing. The pigment could also lead to new, energy-efficient outdoor paints—helping keep buildings cooler thanks to its strong reflective properties. And now that it’s officially a part of Harvard’s pigment collection, its historical importance has been confirmed.
While the discovery was a stroke of sheer luck, it is Subramanian’s approach to experimentation that ensured the accident did not go unnoticed. “Accidental discoveries are not very common. Unfortunately, even when something happens, it may be missed. As Louis Pasteur famously said, ‘In scientific observation, luck favors the prepared mind,’” the professor reminds us. “Always expect the unexpected!”
Learn more about the Subramanian Research Group here.