Mas Subramanian Set out to Make a Semiconductor and Ended Up with a New Blue Pigment
Materials science professor Mas Subramanian wants to set the record straight. First off, the Oregon State researcher did invent a new blue pigment, a feat that no person, laboratory, or corporation has been able to accomplish in about 200 years. It’s a big deal, and not just because of the “Oh cool, a new pigment” factor.
Secondly, and in a passionate plea for sanity, he did not invent a new blue color. Ignore the incorrect label on his TEDx Talk – a title he surely didn’t give it. Colors, or shades, are inherent to the light spectrum, which isn’t something one can create. But he’ll explain that more later.
And thirdly, even if he did, which he didn’t, that’s not what’s so cool about his new YInMn Blue. This pigment – remember, not color – is vastly different than other pigments on the market and has the potential to shake up the multibillion-dollar world of pigments. Yes, that’s billion, with a b. This is a huge industry because we interact with pigments every day. They are on our walls, in our clothes, on our cereal boxes, in makeups and sodas, and, well, everything. And the pigment industry continues to find new uses for its products every year.
Blue does not exist in nature – no, really.
“The global pigments market is expected to reach revenues of $34.2 billion by 2020, due largely to extraordinary growth in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a 2016 Ceresana report titled Market Study: Pigments, 3rd Edition.
To dive into the how, why, and what is going on, Subramanian wants everyone to take a step back first. Before we get carried away with a shiny new pigment that’s easy to visualize and understand, it’s important to be grounded in the science.
Blue, as he was told during his 21-year-plus career at DuPont, is one of the hardest pigments to create. In fact, blue does not exist in nature – no, really. There’s no debate about it. Well, then, what about, say, Frank Sinatra’s blue eyes? Not blue.
To claim you made a new color is like the scientific equivalent of Columbusing – “discovering” something that’s been around forever.
In the case of eye color, blue is actually the lack of a pigment. What we see is one of nature’s many tricks. The color is entirely structural. Sinatra types actually lack the eye pigment melanin, such that when a “blue”-eyed person moves their eye, the color we see changes slightly. And blueberries: Just rename them berries, ’cause that blue part is a sham.
But we do see blue. You’re not crazy. When we see blue it’s because of the inherent properties of light. When light travels, it moves in waves. The size of the wavelength determines what, if anything, we see. The difference between a blue, a green, or an undetectable infrared is just the frequency at which the light wave moves. So when Subramanian says you can’t create a new color, he’s technically correct, because the wavelength is out there already. To claim you made a new color is like the scientific equivalent of Columbusing – “discovering” something that’s been around forever. And he doesn’t want to be the pigment world’s Christopher Columbus.
Image by Julie Campbell.
So then, what’s a pigment? A pigment is what gives something else its color. It is what makes that white bucket of paint at Home Depot or Lowe’s turn into a color like RAL 2053 or whatever else, after the paint-mixing machines squirt a few inks – pigments – into it and give it a good shake.
The professor’s discovery is a new squirt. And that gives manufacturers a range of new possibilities – and possibilities mean money. “The biggest inorganic blue is ultramarine blue,” says Mark Ryan, marketing manager for Shepherd Color Company, the sole distributor of the new pigment. “Ultramarine is similar in shade to YInMn blue, but not nearly as durable, because it has acid stability issues. YInMn’s stability opens it up to a marketplace where the rival blues can’t quite compete.”
YInMn, or Mas blue, gets its name from the three core elements in addition to oxygen: yttrium, indium, and manganese. It’s only the third inorganic blue pigment ever discovered, following Prussian blue and cobalt blue – the newest having been created in 1802. (Ultramarine doesn’t quite qualify as a discovery, as it’s a synthetic version of something that’s been used for 6,000 years.) But this creation is more than just a new, more vibrant blue. The blue is made through a process that hasn’t previously been used to make pigment. The result of this process gives YInMn blue special properties that could make it a game-changer for how cars, homes, and even roofs are made.
Image by Julie Campbell.
For one, it’s very stable. That’s a common hallmark difference between organic and inorganic pigments. It’s not a universal truth, but typically inorganic pigments have greater stability. “When you think of organic, it means it’s carbon-based, not that it’s from Whole Foods,” Ryan says. The most common blue is phthalocyanine blue BN, and it is organic. It has a lot of tint strength. It weathers okay; it’s inexpensive. But if you’re looking for something that will last decades, especially lighter blue shades, it’s not the right choice. Rather, phthalocyanine blue is used in quickly disposed things, like plastics.
But when you have an application where you need the color to last, a different blue is necessary. Something like car colors, or roofs, which are sometimes blue in industrial settings. These are times when YInMn could really make a difference, Ryan explains.
Another big difference is its special material properties. Anyone who has sat in a black car on a summer day knows the basic principle of how color works, whether they realize it or not. The darker the color we see looks, like black, the more light it absorbs and the hotter it feels when we touch it. But not this blue, or the colors made with Subramanian’s new process. In fact, this blue pigment reflects light very similarly to the way white does. So how we think about keeping our spaces cool may be entirely rethought.
As remarkable and potentially profitable as this discovery is, the truth is it was a sort of mistake.
Pigments and colors are one of a number of very basic material properties that we all sort of understand, but the general public doesn’t truly know what’s going on, says Patrick Woodward, a solid state chemist at Ohio State University. “Color is somewhat unusual in that everyone inherently understands what color is, and to a first approximation you don’t need any instrumentation to determine the color of a substance. You can’t say the same thing about piezoelectricity or superconductivity or even magnetism. The other thing people don’t understand is that not all colors are equally easy to produce,” he adds.
And it doesn’t take a degree from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Economics to guess that rarity can translate into profitability quite quickly. If pigments are hard to produce, an inorganic blue may be only second in covetability to an inorganic red. As remarkable and potentially profitable as this discovery is, the truth is it was a sort of mistake. Subramanian isn’t, or wasn’t, a color researcher. He was in the semiconductor game.
Subramanian holding a piece of YInMn blue in the lab. Image courtesy of Oregon State University.
“We were looking for a semiconductor and got blue,” the Oregon State researcher says. “Now we are looking for a pigment, and I’ll probably find a semiconductor! You can never plan for what happens. There’s so much unknown in science. We think we can do everything by prediction or computer simulation. Once you create something you can explain it, but doing it the other way is harder. You need to have a more broad-minded approach, [or] you may miss something more interesting.”
Science, especially materials science, is filled with accidental discoveries that have changed the world. It’s a badge of honor to be able to accidentally discover something great and recognize it’s more than just a mistake. When Mas’s team heated yttrium, indium, and manganese oxides to about 2,200 degrees Celsius, the result was a blue powder. Shocked at the outcome, Subramanian told his team to run it again. And for a second time, a vibrant blue was created. So like any good researcher would, he ran test after test after test.
YInMn blue didn’t fade. It didn’t absorb light like a blue typically does. The process is able to be tweaked to yield other colors. The only current downside is the cost. But that may be a limitation of the times we live in, rather than an inherent problem. At $720 a kilogram, it’s not going to have wide market penetration.
Getting the EPA registrations can take anywhere from 90 days to never.
The big problem? Yttrium. This element just isn’t used much beyond some computing applications. And it’s also not easy to get, because it’s only found with other elements in compound form, never freely existing. But at least it’s not rare. It’s the 28th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust – 400 times more common than silver, a fairly everyday item.
But with a ramped-up effort to mine, extract, and process yttrium, the price could drop. Take, for example, silicon. At the dawn of the computer era, the cost of silicon wafers was sky-high. There just weren’t many companies extracting, purifying and making silicon wafers. But now, there are plenty of companies making it and silicon is used everywhere, and as such the price has dropped dramatically, making it possible to have a computer in every home and a phone in everyone’s pocket.
“In the beginning it’s always kind of challenging,” Subramanian says. It’s difficult to get industry to ramp up, because the few players in it are incentivized to keep the competition low and the margins high. But the demand is growing, and there is a tipping point. Eventually, the industry will be forced to increase its yttrium production.
On his first try, he made blue. So now the hunt turns to the big fish: red.
Already, Subramanian has signed a deal with Shepherd Color Company to make his blue commercially available. “The economics are definitely challenging,” Ryan says. “Also, getting the EPA registrations can take anywhere from 90 days to never; it’s a process. Right now we have a conditional approval for industrial use.” He added that Shepherd is well poised to make the pigment, because specialty pigments is the niche they are in. They, unlike Subramanian, can make it in high quantity and have a network of buyers in their orbit who can get YInMn into the market.
And while Shepherd works on getting it used for things like roofs and large-scale industrial applications, Subramanian is back in the lab. Not making more blues, but taking his yttrium-based technique and expanding it to other colors. On his first try, he made blue. So now the hunt turns to the big fish: red.
If, or when, he does succeed, another billion-dollar market will open up and he’ll have the likes of Ferrari lining up to have a bright pigment that doesn’t absorb energy like colors typically do, doesn’t use hazardous elements (as reds often do), and doesn’t fade.