OSU Has Developed a Bluer Blue

“The first new blue since 1802.” You might assume the poetic staccato of such a repeatable phrase was crafted by an English major or public relations professional.

Nope. Those words came from Mas Subramanian, a chemist and Oregon State University professor, describing a discovery he and his student made in 2009.

They were looking for no such thing. Subramanian had instructed his graduate student, Andrew Smith, to test the electrical conductivity of three basic elements, combined and then heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 hours. The minute the professor saw the result, he said, “What the heck happened?”

“That may not have been the exact word I used,” he admitted to me last week, “but you get the general idea.” He continued. “We were not looking for this. It was pure serendipity. I’m not afraid to admit that. I’m a scientist. I like telling the truth.”

Telling and truth sometimes diverge. That’s the tale.

He and his student stumbled upon a deep, vibrant blue that no one had ever produced before. And it was so easy to make! It’s non-toxic, and it could be revolutionary. How revolutionary? My meeting with the professor got bumped for a few minutes, so he could compare notes with an OSU Licensing Agent about patent licensing agreements.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Crayola is sponsoring a naming contest for this new blue. If you disrupt Crayola’s hegemon of 64, you’ve really accomplished something.

Some call it MasBlue, since the professor’s first name means “more” in Spanish. Others call it “blue-tiful.” It’s official name is YInMn blue, drawing from its three component elements: yttrium, indium, and manganese.

Only because I like a challenge, let me try to describe the color. It’s a blue that thought about purple but reconsidered. It’s a blue that refuses to take green’s phone calls. As the darkest of the three primary colors, it’s more likely to pair with black. It’s “bluer than blue,” but only until you’ve seen it. Like the man whose team discovered it, this blue tells the truth about its blueness.

Its purity somehow makes it both dark and bright. “It almost hurts to look at it,” observed Blake Day, his undergraduate student and a Willamette High School graduate. “Almost” is the operative word. The primary color is so pure that it should hurt — yet it doesn’t.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. Scientists and engineers have mixed this new blue with a special black to make a pleasing blue-gray tone. It reflects heat almost as well as bright white.

Here is where the telling and the truth diverge. Quotation marks will help. Something that “looks” so “dark” “should” absorb heat. Words falter, so numbers must pick up the story in one of Subramanian’s labs.

Two small model houses have been built with what look like identical blue-gray roofs — one made with YinMn blue, one without. The models are positioned beneath two heat bulbs. Minutes after the bulbs are turned on, the roof temperatures begin to diverge. YInMn blue absorbs so much less heat that it’s quickly 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the other blue that looks identical.

If every roof and every pavement could absorb light but reflect heat the way this model roof does, the planet could be cooled without appearing uncomfortably bright. I told you it was revolutionary.

“Was it a discovery or an invention?” I asked. “Does it exist somewhere or did you make it for the first time?”

Professor Subramanian refuses my frame. “Scientists make discoveries,” he told me. “An invention sounds like a gadget.” This color may exist somewhere in a super-hot corona, but humans saw it first in his lab at OSU.

Subramanian had one other bone to pick with me. “This is not about the color. Colors exist at every point on the spectrum. What we have developed here is a pigment of the color.” Finally, a word conveyed a meaningful distinction, useful to the science. I only have to admit that Subramanian clarified those terms in the first minute of our conversation.

Columnists also like telling the truth.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.