The first new blue to be “discovered" in 200 years was a happy accident.
Blue has been an important colour in art and decoration since ancient times, and so it is somewhat of a big deal when a brand new blue gets “discovered”.
Blue is a colour that sits between violet and green on the spectrum of visible light; and a pigment is a material that absorbs certain parts of that colour spectrum, and reflects others, thereby manifesting a particular hue.
Very few blue pigments are available organically in nature. A butterfly’s wings, a peacock’s feathers or even blue eyes are not blue for reasons of pigment, but rather due to the structure of the materials. Scientists call this “structural colour”. The sky is blue, technically, because it scatters gas molecules selectively: oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. We often see blue in nature, but we can rarely capture it.
So early civilisations were, by necessity, forced to turn to technology to create blue pigments.
The semi-precious stone lapis lazuli was used in ancient Egypt to make the pigment Ultramarine. In 1704 the colour-maker (great job title) Johann Jacob Diesbacht accidentally made the first modern artificially manufactured colour, and that became known as Prussian Blue. And although cobalt occurs naturally in the ore smaltite, it wasn’t until 1802 that the French chemist Louis Jacques Thénard synthesised a modern Cobalt Blue.
Which brings us to the new kid on the block: YInMn Blue … the first new blue to be “discovered" in 200 years, and the whole thing was a happy accident.
Mas Subramanian, Professor of Materials Science at Oregon State University, was in his lab with then grad student Andrew E. Smith in 2009 developing materials for use in electronics. They were mixing and grinding chemicals, and then superheating them to 1,300°C (over 2,300°F).
Smith, took a particular mix out of the furnace to find it had turned a surprising bright blue colour. Surprising because the three oxides in question: yttrium (Y), indium (In) and manganese (Mn) were white, yellow and black respectively.
YInMn Blue absorbs red and green wavelengths and reflects blue wavelengths in such a way that it comes off looking a very bright blue. More vivid than Cobalt or Prussian blue, near-perfect YInMn Blue was approved by the US Environmental Agency for industrial use in 2017 and for commercial use in 2020.
While the art world like it for the colour (according to Mark Ryan, marketing manager of the pigment manufacturing business The Shepherd Colour Company), industrial companies like it for its infrared radiation reflecting qualities that keep any building it adorns cool.
Both rare and expensive, YInMn Blue is only readily available in a small number of places worldwide e.g. the Italian Art Store, a family business based in Waterville, Maine, sells 1.3 ounce tubes of the "Oregon Blue” paint for US$179.40 … six times more than its most expensive tube of acrylic paint. “From what I can tell,” says Italian Art Store’s Gail Fishback, “most of the customers are buying it out of curiosity and for bragging rights.”
And in 2017, inspired by YInMn Blue, Crayola introduced its new crayon “Bluetiful” mimicking the new colour.
Since this accidental discovery Subramanian and his team have gone on to explore the fundamental principles of colour science resulting in a wide range of intentionally designed green, purple and orange pigments. They are now shooting for red.
Finally, in 2018 Subramanian delivered a talk at TEDxUNC wherein he tells his discovery story first hand, comparing the happy accident with the equally serendipitous invention of the low-tack 3M Post-it® Note by Art Fry in 1973, and reminding us also by citing the words of Louis Pasteur that: “Luck favours the alert mind.”
1. YInMn Blue Pigment discovered at Mas Subramanian's lab at Oregon State University.
2. Professor Mas Subramanian looks at the blue pigment that was discovered at his lab in Oregon State University. Photo: Karl Maasdam/Oregon State University
3. Courtesy of Jun Li/Oregon State University
4. Photo: The Shepherd Colour Company
5. Oregon Blue Paint. Photo: The Italian Art Store.
6. Crayola Bluetiful. Photo: Bennet Raglin / Getty Images for Crayola.
7. Art Fry with Post-it™ Note
8. Huh? BLUE Merchandise at REMO