The chemist and Oregon State University professor Mas Subramanian was focused on discovering exotic materials to use in electronics. But to his surprise, he became known for accidentally creating something quite different: a color called YInMn blue–the first new blue pigment in centuries. Now, Subramanian’s pigment is serving as the inspiration for Crayola’s newest crayon.
In 2009, a student in Subramanian’s lab pulled a combination of the oxides of yttrium, indium, and manganese out of the furnace. To Subramanian’s surprise, the substance was a bright, brilliant blue. He knew immediately he’d discovered something.
It turned out to be a pigment–the first blue pigment discovered since 1802, when the French chemist Louis Jacques Thenard discovered cobalt blue (though in actuality, it had been used in Chinese pottery for centuries). Subramanian’s pigment, because it’s made at high temperatures, is a very stable compound, meaning that it doesn’t react when heated, cooled, or mixed with water or acid. It’s also easily reproducible, making it valuable for manufacturing purposes, and it reflects heat, which would help it keep objects or spaces cooler. Subramanian, who had worked at DuPont for 22 years before becoming a professor, and who has 60 patents to his name, knew that it was an incredible discovery. He filed for a patent immediately.
“It was serendipity, or a happy accident, because we weren’t looking for it,” he says. “Most of the science discoveries come from an unexpected place.”
From there, Subramanian was able to make more pigments, including orange, green, purple, and turquoise, using the same chemical structure but simply substituting the manganese of the YInMn compound for other elements like zinc, iron, copper, and titanium.
Subramanian says that Crayola heard about his discovery, and because creating a new blue pigment is such a scientific breakthrough, the company was interested in using his blue for a new crayon color (particularly because blue seems to be a perennial favorite). Of course, YInMn Blue isn’t a very catchy name, so Crayola is also holding a competition to name the color. In our conversation, Subramanian seemed to be partial to one option: Mas Blue.
You can’t buy real YInMn Blue crayons just yet, though. The pigment is still undergoing testing by the Shepherd Color Company, which licensed it from Subramanian, and needs to pass additional toxicity tests to get FDA approval. Crayola says the new crayons will be inspired by the hue, and Subramanian says it should be ready for every kid’s box of crayons by the end of the year. But since the Shepherd Color Company makes colors for more than just crayons, full-fledged YInMn Blue could eventually end up in car paint, house paint, and even in paint for warships.
“Creativity and innovation are part of being a successful scientist,” Subramanian says. “As chemists we are just like kids. So I understand the excitement of adding a new color to the box. For me, it’s like adding a new element to the periodic table. The possibility of creating new materials would be endless.”