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Chemistry for Crayola

Posted on May 10th, 2017 by in Chemical R&D

YInMn pigment created by OSU

Image by Oregon State University via Flickr

Life didn’t hand lemons to researchers at Oregon State University, but a new pigment was also not intended. Their journey to materials with novel magnetic properties took an unexpected turn making Crayola see blue in lieu of yellow.

The timeline of modern innovation and scientific discovery is littered with serendipitous moments. Even if experimental results are not what’s expected, careful observation can yield revolutionary and sometimes shocking developments. This is precisely how Mas Subramanian, Milton Harris Chair Professor of Materials Science in the Oregon State University Department of Chemistry recounted his reaction to witnessing a vibrant blue powder being extracted from a furnace following semiconductor material experimentation of one graduate student.

“We were trying to find a material with novel magnetic properties for electronics applications, but it didn’t work. I didn’t think it would have a special color. I expected it to be brown or black,” says Subramanian. “But when I saw what he had, I knew this was something unusual.”

Something unusual indeed. The powder’s unusual crystalline structure is known to chemists as “trigonal-bipyramidal coordination” consisting of the elements yttrium, indium and manganese. Referred to as YInMn or ‘yin-min’, the bight blue inorganic pigment is formed when the element are paired with manganese oxide and heated to almost 2,000 degrees F. Relatively non-toxic as well as having infrared reflective properties, Subramanian claims potential applications for the new pigment includes paint, coatings, plastics, inks, cosmetics, and stealth applications for the military.

The new pigment is also finding appreciation in the artistic world. Constantly on the lookout for new colors, the Crayola company has announced the use of YInMn in a new crayon simultaneously retiring their Dandelion yellow. Crayola is sponsoring a competition to name the new blue running through June 2, 2017. You can get in on the fun by submitting your candidates here. Have a look at the following video to see how artists at OSU are making use of the pigment:

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can all take from Subramanian and his students is the power of observation as part of the scientific method. When results aren’t as expected, always remain curious as to why as well as the physical phenomena at work in the process. There could be more than lemonade at stake.

What is the best “mistake” you’ve made in your professional or academic career? Tell us about your quest for unconventional knowledge and what it could mean for the future of your products or companies. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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