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How Scientists Invented A New Blue (And Other Colors Created In A Lab)

The blackest black, the bluest blue, the yellowest yellow, and the rainbowest . . . rainbow? Designers didn't invent them. Chemists did.

How Scientists Invented A New Blue (And Other Colors Created In A Lab)

Unless the physical laws of the universe radically change, you'll never see a new color in your lifetime, no matter how hard Pantone tries to convince you otherwise. Almost as rare? The creation of new colorants, or physical materials which are used to impart colors in different materials.

New colorants can be worth hundreds of millions to the labs who discover them, as they open up countless new design and manufacturing opportunities. Creating them takes a lot of hard science—and a big dash of luck. Here are four new "colors" science has discovered in the last decade.

YInMn Blue

Oregon State University

In the world of color science, the creation of new pigments is extremely rare. In fact, by and large, most of the pigments that help color our world are the same ones we've been using since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. That's why professor Mas Subramanian's discovery of a new kind of blue pigment back in 2009 was a big deal. His blue, called YInMn (short for ytrrium, indium, and manganese) blue, is the first new inorganic blue pigment to have been discovered since cobalt blue first entered manufacturing 200 years ago.

This new blue has many benefits over cobalt blue: Unlike cobalt, it's not poisonous, and it doesn't fade over time. In appearance, it has the dreamy, magical depth of lapis lazuli, and it can also endure oil, water, and sunlight better than other blues. That makes it a much better blue to use in everything from clothing to paints. And due to an infrared reflectivity that's higher than most paints, it has a lot of potential for being used in roofing, which could lead to big energy savings. The skyline of the future might be YInMn blue.

NTP Yellow

Kalmila via Shutterstock

For years, one of the best yellow pigments you could find was called "pigment yellow 34" (or PY 34), a vibrantly orangey yellow that almost looks identical in its raw form to the fluorescent powdered cheese dust that comes with your box of mac and cheese. But try to sprinkle this stuff in your pasta, and you'd die—its technical name is lead chromate, and it's as toxic as it sounds. It also tended to darken over time, developing a gross green or yellowish tinge, like mustard that's allowed to crust over. Because of its toxicity, what once was a common pigment in many different settings can now only be used for industrial and professional applications: for example, yellow safety signs at a factory.

In 2010, Simon Boocock of the Shepherd Color Company came up with an alternative, which he called NTP (or Niobium Tin Pyrochlore) Yellow. Although it's slightly different from the original, this new pigment is a bright, clean yellow that doesn't fade and has excellent durability, again making it a better yellow for fabrics and paints, while also serving as a valuable "mixing" pigment to create other beautiful, durable colors. Today, NTP Yellow is protected by patent—and the Shepherd Color Company runs a brisk business selling it to manufacturers around the world.


Vantablack via Surrey NanoSystems

Most of the colors we see in the world around us are the results of pigments, which are chemical compounds that can be added to a relatively colorless base (like paint, plastic, paper, or fabric) to shift the way light scatters off it, creating the appearance of a certain color. Vantablack, though, isn't a pigment. It's essentially a specially applied coating that mimics a black hole, gobbling up light and causing it to bounce around endlessly in a forest of vertical carbon nanotubes.

Similar to a material created by NASA in 2011 that could help absorb light and radiation before it could disrupt the sensors of deep space satellites, Vantablack was developed by Surrey NanoSystems. In appearance, it looks like the blackest black ever, as though light is literally disappearing into it. That's why it didn't take long for artists and designers outside of NASA to declare Vantablack the new black, despite the fact it's both insanely expensive and insanely difficult to apply. Right now, art world legend Anish Kapoor has exclusive rights to use the material in his work in the U.K., leading to a small-scale riot among British artists who probably couldn't afford to use it anyway.

Artificial Iridescence

Jun Wat via Shutterstock

Iridescence isn't really a color. It's all colors, and none of them, all at once. If you've ever seen a beetle's shell, a butterfly's wings, or a peacock's feathers, you're familiar with the color-shifting phenomenon that gives the natural world a sort of holographic shimmering effect. It's created by something called "structural coloration," which causes different colors to appear in an object when viewed from different angles, thanks to wave interference.

In 2011, researchers at the University of Sheffield's Department of Physics and Astronomy created a pigment-free polymer that mimicked natural iridescence. The effect was achieved by creating a highly ordered sandwich of different polymers, which causes an optical rainbow effect similar to an opal's when you look at it from different angles. The lead researcher, Andrew Parnell, called the results "wonderful and funky."

What will it be used for? Not fashion or car paint, sadly, but anti-counterfeiting measures on passports and currency. Not the most exciting use, surely—but perhaps one of the most marketable.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Vantablack was created by NASA.

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