Scientists Discover a Perfect Blue Pigment—Entirely by Accident

By Brett Israel | November 24, 2009 2:38 pm

blue-pigmentScientists say that a thousand-year quest–one that you probably didn’t even know about–has accidentally come to an end. Painters and fabric makers can rest easy because Mas Subramanian and his research team at Oregon State University have created a near-perfect blue pigment. Blue pigments of the past have often been expensive (ultramarine blue was made from the gemstone lapis lazuli, ground up), poisonous (cobalt blue is a possible carcinogen and Prussian blue, another well-known pigment, can leach cyanide) or apt to fade (many of the organic ones fall apart when exposed to acid or heat) [The New York Times].

The new pigment popped up when the researchers were mixing manganese oxide, which is black, with other chemicals and then heating them up to high temperatures to study their electronic properties. One day, Subramanian was poking around in his lab when he noticed a graduate student removing a sample from the furnace that was brilliant blue.

The 2,000-degree-Fahrenheit furnace created a crystal structure that allowed the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light while reflecting blue wavelengths. White yttrium oxide and pale yellow indium oxide are also required to stabilize the crystal structure. Subramanian said the pigment is safe, but far from cheap, since indium is quite costly, so they are trying to substitute cheaper oxides for indium. “Basically, this was an accidental discovery,” said Subramanian. “We were exploring manganese oxides for some interesting electronic properties they have, something that can be both ferroelectric and ferromagnetic at the same time. Our work had nothing to do with looking for a pigment” [UPI]. Regardless, their research appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

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Image: Oregon State University

MORE ABOUT: chemistry, light
  • Angie

    I´m blue for this new blue!

  • neenee

    Reminds me of Percy, in Blackadder II, episode 4 ‘Money’, where he discovers a nugget of the Purest Green :)

  • Robert

    Pity on the nameless graduate student that had prepared the material when his supervisor just wanders into the lab and takes the credit

    At least it’s still an expensive material because of the indium, so the quest isn’t over quite yet :-)


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