How a New Blue Pigment Became a Crayon

new blue, crayon
Chemists at Oregon State University accidentally discovered the first new blue pigment in more than two centuries. It was subsequently named YlnMn (YIN-min) blue and turned into a crayon named 'Bluetiful.' Flickr (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Clothes, candy, cars ... they all come in just about every color of the rainbow. Even toddlers have 120 crayon colors at their fingertips. With all that, it's hard to imagine there are new colors yet to discover. But in 2009 that's just what Mas Subramanian, professor of materials science at Oregon State University, and his grad student did, though by accident.

During work on an electronics-related project, Subramanian asked his student to mix yttrium, indium and manganese oxides and heat them in a furnace. The next morning, the grayish mixture had turned a brilliant, vibrant blue. At first Subramanian thought it was a mistake and repeated the experiment. More of the intensely blue powder resulted.

They had discovered the first new blue pigment in more than two centuries, and it was subsequently named YlnMn (YIN-min) blue. The last blue pigment discovered had been the beautiful but toxic cobalt blue, all the way back in 1802. Before the discovery of cobalt blue, the only game in town for blue was ultramarine. Made from semi-precious lapis lazuli, it was considered more valuable than gold, and most artists couldn't afford to use it.

Colors are made in two ways: by light or by pigment. Natural pigments include the brown melanin in freckles and the green chlorophyll in plants. Some animals' color comes from the pigments in their food, such as flamingos (pink from shrimp) and cardinals (red from berries).

But blue is hard for animals to manufacture. Instead, birds, butterflies and other critters that appear blue have microscopic structures on their scales or feathers that reflect blue light. If you ground up a few blue feathers, for instance, you'd get a greyish or brownish powder. YlnMn stays blue when ground, heated, cooled or mixed with water or acid. It's the first blue pigment that can reflect heat.

YlnMn blue caught Crayola's eye and inspired a new crayon based on the color. After 90,000 submissions from fans, the new blue got its crayon name: "Bluetiful." Bluetiful is now available as part of Crayola's rainbow of colors, but if you're looking for Dandelion, don't bother; the 27-year veteran hue was retired from the 24-count box in 2017.