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The First New Blue Pigment in Over 200 Years Will Become a Crayon

Discovered accidentally in a lab in Oregon in 2009, YInMn blue is now headed for widespread use, thanks to Crayola.

YInMn blue (photo courtesy Oregon State University)

Soon to slide into crayon boxes everywhere: a newcomer that will make widely accessible the first blue pigment created in over 200 years. Known as “YInMn blue,” the pigment was the surprise result of a 2009 chemistry lab experiment at Oregon State University (OSU), and it’s now set to be put into real-world use, thanks to Crayola.

Graduate student Andrew Smith made the discovery while working with professor Mas Subramanian to test new materials for potential use in electronics. A mix of manganese oxide, yttrium, and indium, heated to nearly 2,000˚ F, produced the vivid, non-toxic blue sample. In 2015, OSU reached an exclusive licensing agreement for the pigment with the Shepherd Color Company, which then partnered with Crayola to launch the first commercial YInMn blue product. Crayola announced the production of the crayon last month at “The Colorful World of Pigments,” a panel on the new blue and color theory.

“Most pigments are discovered by chance,” Subramanian said in a statement. “The reason is because the origin of the color of a material depends not only on the chemical composition, but also on the intricate arrangement of atoms in the crystal structure. So someone has to make the material first, then study its crystal structure thoroughly to explain the color.”

Blue was actually the first man-made pigment, as Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier has explained: Egyptian blue, which ancient hands created by mixing and heating quartz sand, copper, an alkali, and lime. Since then, scientists over the years have discovered Cerulean blue, Prussian blue, and Cobalt blue, which, according to NPR, was the last synthesized blue to be commercialized. YInMn is especially marketable because its compounds are highly stable, resistant to oil and water, which makes it versatile for many products, from crayons to paint.

“What is amazing is that through much of human history, civilizations around the world have sought inorganic compounds that could be used to paint things blue but often had limited success,” Subramanian said. “Most had environmental and/or durability issues. The YInMn blue pigment is very stable/durable. There is no change in the color when exposed to high temperatures, water, and mildly acidic and alkali conditions.”

When it lands later this year, the YInMn blue crayon will take the place of Crayola’s Dandelion, a yellow crayon that the company is retiring after 27 years — and that, I kid you not, just finished a retirement tour. Since YInMn blue’s name, as it stands, would look a little odd on a crayon, Crayola is inviting the public to help rebrand it through a contest that ends on June 2. But letting people come up with names is not always the best idea (hello Boaty McBoatface) — so if that plan doesn’t work out, perhaps the company could consider using neural networks to generate some truly unique options.

In the meantime, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that Vantablack, too, will enter the crayon market one day.

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