The accidental hue
Throughout history, making a blue pigment has taken hard work—or a stroke of luck
CORVALLIS, OREGON—Mas Subramanian’s most celebrated discovery came out of the blue.
As a solid state chemist at the chemical giant Dupont, Subramanian had put his name on hundreds of publications and dozens of patents. He identified a new superconductor and found a more environmentally friendly route to produce the chemical fluorobenzene. When he left the company to work at Oregon State University here in 2006, he set out to develop a multiferroic, a material with a combination of electronic and magnetic properties that could lead to faster computers.
Following one of Subramanian’s ideas, graduate student Andrew Smith one day mixed indium oxide, manganese oxide, and yttrium oxide and heated the mixture in the oven. The resulting material, it turned out, didn’t have any special magnetic or electric properties. It was just very blue.
Subramanian’s first thought was that Smith, who had recently switched from marine biology to chemistry, had made a mistake. His second thought was something that someone at Dupont had once told him: Blue is really hard to make.
It’s so hard, in fact, that Subramanian’s new color became a phenomenon. The New York Times called within days after his paper on YInMn blue, as he dubbed it, appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Shepherd Color Company in Cheltenham, Australia, licensed the new pigment, which art historian Simon Schama has called “the bluest blue to date,” and marketed it as a paint for artists. The new hue has inspired a music festival, and chip company AMD is using it to dye the housing of a series of graphics processors. “There is something about the color blue that just fascinates people,” Subramanian says.
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