New Gorgeous Shade of Blue Was Accidentally Made by Chemists

June 29, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Blue powder, YInMn
Photo credit: Oregon State University

It’s hitting the household paint market this year!

What started as a failure to produce new magnetic materials for use in electronic applications turned into the discovery of the world’s newest color — and it’s gorgeous.

The vivid blue pigment was discovered accidentally by Oregon State University (OSU) chemists in 2009. After a licensing agreement was reached with The Shepherd Color Company, the color began being used commercially in 2015. However, according to The Huffington Post, later this year, it will start being sold for household paint. Time to redecorate!

OSU chemist Mas Subramanian and his team were experimenting with materials for use in computer hard drives. They mixed manganese oxide — which is black in color — with other chemicals, and heated them in a furnace to nearly 1,093 degrees Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

Although this particular experiment was a failure in producing the desired materials, what was left behind after the mixture was removed from the furnace was a vivid blue powder. “It was serendipity, actually; a happy, accidental discovery,” said Subramanian, who is also the Milton Harris Professor of Materials Science in the OSU College of Science, in a news release.

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The pigment, unfortunately named YInMn after the materials used to create it (yttrium, indium, and manganese — let’s try to be more creative next time, please), acquires its blue hue due to a unique crystal structure, known as trigonal bipyramidal coordination, where the manganese ions absorb green and red wavelengths of light, while only reflecting blue.

“The basic crystal structure we’re using for these pigments was known before, but no one had ever considered using it for any commercial purpose, including pigments,” Subramanian said.  “Ever since the early Egyptians developed some of the first blue pigments, the pigment industry has been struggling to address problems with safety, toxicity and durability.”

YInMn is more than just a pretty face. The pigment has some very desirable and unique characteristics. The vibrant blue is durable and its compounds are very stable — even in oil and water — so the color doesn’t fade. What’s more, the pigment could be “tuned” to produce a range of blues.

The new pigment contains no toxic ingredients. That makes it safer compared to existing blue pigments, like Prussian blue, which contains toxic ingredients, according to a 2014 OSU press release.

“The more we discover about the pigment, the more interesting it gets,” said Subramanian.  “We already knew it had advantages of being more durable, safe and fairly easy to produce. Now it also appears to be a new candidate for energy efficiency.”

YInMn is a “cool blue,” which means it reflects about 40 percent on inbound infrared radiation — a lot higher than other blue colors — so it could be used to keep buildings cool by reflecting light, especially if used for roofing.

The pigment can also be used for artwork. Check out these two paintings created by artist Rebecca Shapiro using YInMn.

Painting by Rebecca Shapiro

Purify, 2011. Image Credit: Rebecca Shapiro/Oregon State University

Summers Eve

Summers Eve, 2011. Photo credit: Rebecca Shapiro/Oregon State University

Read next: Which Came First — Orange the Color or Orange the Fruit?

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