The Color Detective

How an Oregon State Professor Accidentally Created a New Shade of Blue

It was the first truly new blue discovered in more than two centuries.

By Benjamin Tepler September 21, 2017 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

Da17 yinmin blue color detective hirg66

Crayola's new YInMn blue crayon will be called "Bluetiful."

In 2009, Oregon State professor Mas Subramanian and his grad students accidently created a new shade of brilliant blue—the first truly new blue discovered in more than two centuries. How did “YInMn” come to be? The 62-year-old “color detective” explains:

Nature is not very good at blue. The sky is blue, but has no pigments; it’s just a scattering of light from the molecules in the air. Peacocks, blue beetles, or butterflies all look blue, but it’s just the way the light reflects—“structural” color, not a real pigment. It’s all an illusion.

Lapis lazuli comes from a rock in Afghanistan. In the Middle Ages, it was more expensive than gold. Michelangelo, when he painted the Sistine Chapel and Last Judgment, wanted lapis. The Egyptians used copper silicate blue. There have only been four or five blue pigments discovered over the last few centuries. Cobalt blue was discovered in 1802. Discovering a new pigment that’s durable, stabile, nontoxic—nobody has used this chemistry [the color was discovered during an experiment in which manganese oxide was heated to 1,200 degrees Celsius] to make pigments before.

There’s a famous Louis Pasteur quote: “Luck favors the alert mind.” You can’t go to the lab and say, “I’m going to discover a new blue pigment today.” Several famous discoveries came purely by happy accident. You look at Viagra, or the Big Bang Theory. That kind of thing only happens in the lab. That’s why I go all the time. You won’t discover anything sitting in your office.

YInMn has attracted a very diverse population, from artists to poets. And of course the paint and coating industry, and the military. A naval research lab contacted me about creating pigments for ships and artillery. No other blue pigment reflects heat like ours ... a 15 degree Celsius difference between cobalt blue and YInMn in the sun. Crayola is creating a new YInMn blue crayon. It’s got everything you could ask for.

Filed under
Show Comments