Bluer blues and blacker blacks? How science is enhancing colors

Chemists and physicists are experimenting with ways to make shades inspired by nature even more vivid and intense.

Photograph by REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF
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Both chemistry and ingenuity went into the creation of new pigments with exceptional intensity, including a black that absorbs light almost like a black hole does in outer space.
Photograph by REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF
This story appears in the December 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It was the bright, iridescent blue of the morpho butterfly that inspired Andrew Parnell and his colleagues. Struck by the insect’s natural ability to produce vibrant hues, the physicists and chemists began investigating how they too could produce eye-catching color—not with dyes, but by altering the structure of the material itself. “We could make these really nice reflectors, very much like the butterflies do, mimicking how nature makes them,” says Parnell, whose lab at the University of Sheffield, England, studies colors that span the rainbow.

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The kind of iridescent, rainbow effects that occur naturally in opal gemstones were created by scientists at the University of Sheffield, England, by layering together polymers.

A pigment produces color by absorbing all but a specific wavelength of light. By contrast, colors produced by altering the arrangement of molecules reflect only a specific wavelength. Parnell calls it the science of controlling light.

Blue pigments occur rarely in nature. But some 4,800 miles to the west of Parnell’s lab, at Oregon State University, materials scientist Mas Subramanian discovered a new blue pigment—by chance. Searching for a magnetic material that could store electricity and be used in computers, Subramanian and his graduate students stuck a mixture of the metallic elements yttrium, indium, and manganese into a furnace and were surprised to see that they’d created a bright blue substance. He named it YInMn, from the elements’ symbols.

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1. Extreme black

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The superblack pigment shown here, made by British artist Stuart Semple, is used in acrylic painting. Superblack coatings absorb nearly all visible light, almost like a black hole. They make three-dimensional objects look flat. The famous Vantablack has been used to coat a luxury vehicle and watches, but an even blacker black was made last year by MIT.

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2. Extreme blue

Named YInMn (pronounced yin-min), it’s the first new blue pigment discovered in the past 200 years. The vivid color is surprisingly effective at reflecting heat, making it useful in keeping buildings cool.

Hear more about the new blue pigment on a coming episode of our podcast, Overheard at National Geographic.

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3. Extreme pink

The fluorescent pink pigment was created by Semple, who makes art materials and sells them online.

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4. Extreme orange

Manufactured by the Shepherd Color Company, this RTZ Orange is also quite green—that is, free of toxic components such as lead and chromate.

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5. Extreme yellow

Like RTZ Orange, NTP Yellow is made by Shepherd Color and is used to give coatings and plastics a vibrant, durable yellow color.