An ancient quest for the perfect blue ended in a hot furnace in OSU’s Department of Chemistry — totally by accident.
A blue pigment that is both safe and stable eluded the Egyptians, the Han Dynasty and the Mayans. The French developed cobalt blue in the 1800s, but it contains carcinogens. Prussian blue releases cyanide. Other pigments break down in hot or acidic conditions.
So when Professor Mas Subramanian walked through the materials science lab just as a student opened a white-hot furnace and laid eyes on manganese oxide samples being tested for electromagnetic properties, he stopped in his tracks. “They were blue—a very beautiful blue,” says Subramanian. At nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the manganese oxide ions restructure into an unusual “trigonal bipyramidal coordination.”
The intense blue compound holds promise for a heat- and acid-resistant pigment free of toxins. Many of its potential applications — inkjet printers and automobiles, for example — could never have been imagined by those earliest seekers of the perfect blue.