C&B Notes

Pigmentation Experimentation

In 2009, Mas Subramanian accidentally discovered the first new blue pigment in more than 200 years, which could be useful for a surprisingly wide array of applications in the multi-billion dollar “color” industry.  Next on his list is red, a pigment color that has proven elusive so far.

During his nine-year sojourn into the strange, finicky realm of color, Mas Subramanian, a materials science professor at Oregon State University at Corvallis, has grown infatuated with a form of chemistry that he, like many of his peers, once considered decidedly low-tech.  His renown derives from his accidental creation, in 2009, of a new pigment, a substance capable of imparting color onto another material. YInMn blue (pronounced YIN-min) is an amalgam of yttrium, indium oxide, and manganese — elements deep within the periodic table that together form something unique.  YInMn was the first blue pigment discovered in more than 200 years.  

It isn’t only the exotic blueness that has excited the color industry, but also the other hues the pigment can generate.  Subramanian soon realized that by adding copper, he could make a green.  With iron, he got orange.  Zinc and titanium, a muted purple.  Scanning these creations, scattered across his workbench like evidence of a Willy Wonka bender, he frowns. “We’ve made other colors,” he says.  “But we haven’t found red.”

The world lacks a great all-around red.  Always has.  We’ve made do with alternatives that could be toxic or plain gross.  The gladiators smeared their faces with mercury-based vermilion.  Titian painted with an arsenic-based mineral called realgar.  The British army’s red coats were infused with crushed cochineal beetles.  For decades, red Lego bricks contained cadmium, a carcinogen.  More than 200 natural and synthetic red pigments exist today, but each has issues with safety, stability, chromaticity, and/or opacity.  Red 254, aka Ferrari red, for example, is safe and popular, but it’s also carbon-based, leaving it susceptible to fading in the rain or the heat.  “If we sit out in the sun, it’s not good for us,” says Narayan Khandekar, director of Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation & Technical Studies and curator of the Forbes Pigment Collection.  “That’s the same for most organic systems.”  One red is stable, nontoxic, and everlasting: iron oxide, or red ocher, the ruddy clay found in Paleolithic cave paintings.  “It’s just not bright in the way that people want,” Khandekar says.

A new pigment can generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually, affecting product categories from plastics to cosmetics to cars to construction.  The most commercially successful blue, phthalocyanine, is found in eye shadow, hair gel, even the cars on British railways.  Subramanian’s blue appears to be superior, but that doesn’t mean it has made him rich.  What began as a scientific pursuit has opened up a whole new set of challenges getting YInMn approved, produced, and on the market.

With that process in motion, Subramanian, more scientist than chief executive, is now hunting for a similarly safe, inorganic red derivative of YInMn — something that could put Ferrari red, which is worth an estimated $300 million annually, well in its rearview mirror.  Mark Ryan, marketing manager at Shepherd Color Co. in Cincinnati, says whoever finds such a red “wouldn’t have to come into work the next day.”

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The difficult thing about pigment research is that, even after the most meticulous planning and scrupulous strategizing, you still don’t know for sure what you’ve created until you open the oven door.  Looking for electronics, Subramanian wound up with a new blue.  Maybe while looking for red, he jokes, he’ll stumble on some new electronics.

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