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Chemists accidentally created this beautiful new color in a lab experiment, and now you can paint with it

Oregon State University
Color- fast
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Seven years ago, chemistry researchers accidentally created a brilliant new blue pigment, while testing the electronic properties of chemical compounds. This month, the vivid substance—called YInMn, after the elements yttrium, indium and manganese that compose it—is finally commercially available as paint. Some artists and conservators have already started experimenting with it.

YInMn was created by Oregon State University chemistry professor Mas Subramanian and his students in 2009, the byproduct of heating mixed manganese oxide and other substances in a 2,000°F furnace. They were testing materials for applications in circuit boards and semiconductors when one of their samples came out a vivid blue.

“It was serendipity, actually; a happy, accidental discovery,” Subramanian said in a blog post that November. “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.” But after stumbling upon YInMn, Subramanian quickly recognized its potential value.

Karl Massdam/Oregon State University
Mas Subramanian

Described by New York Magazine as “part neon-blue and two parts Cookie Monster,” YInMn recalls artist Yves Klein’s signature cobalt hue and numerous shades of indigo,ultramarine and royal blue on the spectrum. While the same shade could be created in other ways, what makes this pigment particularly special is its durability and color-fast properties as a chemical coloring agent. Most blue dyes tend to fade, but YInMn is resistant to water, oil or acid and non-toxic.

“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 explains. ”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.”

Starting this month, YInMn will be sold commercially in the form of paint by the Ohio-based color supplier Shepherd Color Company. Scientists are also exploring the use of YInMn as an energy-saving roofing material, since the compound has been found to reflect 40% of infrared light, says Subramanian.

“The more we discover about the pigment, the more interesting it gets,” he said.

Artnet reports that YInMn has been entered in Harvard Art Museum’s Forbes Pigment Collection which preserves the “world history of color.” Because of the pigment’s stable, true-blue qualities, artists have even given YInMn a nickname. “Some artists call it ‘Mas Blue,'” Subramanian tells Quartz. “Mas means ‘more’ in Spanish and happened to be my first name.”

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