First Blue Pigment Discovered In Centuries Hits The Market

Photograph of YInMn Blue as synthesized in the laboratory. Image credit: Mas Subramanian CC BY-SA 4.0

Back in 2009, a bunch of chemists accidentally cooked up a unique and brilliantly blue pigment said to be the first new blue pigment discovered in 200 years. Now, after jumping some regulatory loopholes, the much-loved pigment is now seeing the light of day. 

The pigment — nicknamed YInMn — was fully approved for commercial use under the US Toxic Substances Control Act in May 2020 and is now making its way onto artists’ canvases, Artnet reports. A number of art suppliers have already started producing the pigment, including Kremer Pigmente, Golden Artist Colors, and Shepherd Color, but it’s said to remain extremely expensive and relatively rare. One shop was reported to sell 40 milliliters (less than a shot glass) of the paint for $179.40.

Crayola announced in May 2017 that it was going to replace its retired “Dandelion” yellow color crayon with a new crayon "inspired by" the color of YInMn, although the crayon didn’t contain the actual pigment. 

Like all great discoveries, this one was an accident. The pigment was a chance-discovery by scientists led by Mas Subramanian at Oregon State University (OSU) while researching materials for electronics applications. Graduate student Andrew Smith was attempting to create a high-efficiency electronic material by heating manganese oxide to approximately 1200 °C (~2100 °F) when he noticed that a shocking blue compound had emerged in the furnace. 

"Basically, this was an accidental discovery," Subramanian, a Milton Harris professor of materials science in the OSU Department of Chemistry, in a statement in 2009. "Our work had nothing to do with looking for a pigment."

The pigment was named YInMn Blue after its main chemical constituents: Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese. You can read a detailed study about the creation of the pigment in the journal Inorganic Chemistry in 2015, but those who don’t have a deep knowledge of chemistry might be wondering what the big deal is.

It appears the art world likes the pigment because of the vivid and vibrant color, but YInMn is also a very stable compound that doesn't react when heated, cooled, or mixed with water or acid, making it a desirable choice of material. Many other famous inorganic blue pigments have their fair share of troubles — cobalt blue can be carcinogenic, while Prussian blue can release cyanide — but YInMn appears to be relatively safe and environmentally benign. 

"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," added Subramanian.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Subramanian and his team have since designed other durable colors - including yellow, orange, green, and purple - by tweaking the chemistry used to create YInMn. He even managed to secure a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in April 2020 to find inorganic red pigment that's vivid, safe, and durable.

Correction: This article originally said "40 millimeters" in the second paragraph. It has since been corrected to say "40 milliliters."


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