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The search has been on for nine years, since his team in 2009 came up with the first inorganic blue in 200 years, which soon became a billion-dollar commercial pigment called ‘YInMn blue’ or ‘Mas blue’. M A Subramanian, an alumnus of University of Madras and IIT-M who holds more than 50 other patents, says YInMn blue was an accident. Working on a material for computing, his team had ground yttrium (white), indium oxide (black) and manganese (yellow), and kept the mixture in a furnace.
His discovery, which came at a time the pigment industry had nearly given up on discovering new blue inorganic pigments (or even other colours), is today a billion dollar product.
In “YInMn blue”, blue comes from manganese, by replacing iron for manganese the team made orange, copper for manganese gave green and swapping indium with titanium and zinc made purple. They are yet to find yellow and red.
“We have tried several other variations but so far could not produce red. That’s why I always say that it’s hard to predict colour of the material before one makes it in the lab. That’s why no nobody predicted YInMn blue before we stumbled on it. But we’ve made orange pigments containing non-toxic tin recently and are working on tweaking the chemistry to make bright red pigment out of it. I think we are in the right track and hopefully we will succeed in a year or so,” he says.
Having done most of his education —primary school to Ph.D—in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Subramanian moved to the US in 1984. The Milton Harris Chair Professor of Materials Science in the Department of Chemistry at Oregon State University (where he discovered the blue), was awarded the 2018 Distinguished Alumnus award earlier this year by the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras.
“YInMn Blue was Serendipitous as the project we were working on had nothing to with discovery of a blue pigment. We were doing research on discovery of some exotic materials that may find use in electronics such as computers,” he said.
Subramanian had asked his then graduate student to make a series of compounds by combining oxides of three elements yttrium (which is white), indium (which is yellow) and Manganese (black) by heating the mixtures to high temperatures and study their magnetic properties.
“Next day, when the samples were pulled out from the furnace, I noticed stunningly intense blue powders. Manganese oxides aren’t supposed to give intense blue colours,” he said.
He immediately recognised the potential of these compounds to be useful as blue pigment as they were very stable and didn’t change colour when exposed to high temperature, water, mild acidic and alkali conditions.
“We then realised that the blue was due to manganese atom situated in an unusual atomic environment. We filed a patent immediately (granted in 2012). As the pigment is made up of Yttrium (Y), Indium (In) and Manganese (Mn), we call it YInMn blue,” he added.
“Our research focus has not completely changed. We continue to look for exotic electronic materials like room temperature superconductors, etc. However, we spend 30% of our efforts on finding new benign color pigments, especially red,” he says.