The Quest for the Next Billion-Dollar Color

The world has never had a truly safe, stable, and bright red pigment. The trail may start with YlnMn, the first blue created in two centuries.

Mas Subramanian, the biggest celebrity in the uncelebrated world of pigment research, glances at a cluster of widemouthed jars containing powders in every color of the rainbow, save one. He’s got OYGBIV. “We’re getting closer,” he says brightly. He points to a jar of reddish brown dust, smoky and rich as paprika. Fetching, but it isn’t what he’s looking for.

During his nine-year sojourn into the strange, finicky realm of color, Subramanian, a materials science professor at Oregon State University at Corvallis, has grown infatuated with a form of chemistry that he, like many of his peers, once considered decidedly low-tech. His renown derives from his accidental creation, in 2009, of a new pigment, a substance capable of imparting color onto another material. YInMn blue (pronounced YIN-min) is an amalgam of yttrium, indium oxide, and manganese—elements deep within the periodic table that together form something unique. YInMn was the first blue pigment discovered in more than 200 years.

It isn’t only the exotic blueness that has excited the color industry, but also the other hues the pigment can generate. Subramanian soon realized that by adding copper, he could make a green. With iron, he got orange. Zinc and titanium, a muted purple.

Scanning these creations, scattered across his workbench like evidence of a Willy Wonka bender, he frowns. “We’ve made other colors,” he says. “But we haven’t found red.”

Subramanian in his lab. YInMn was his 57th career patent.
PHOTOGRAPHER: IAN ALLEN FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

The world lacks a great all-around red. Always has. We’ve made do with alternatives that could be toxic or plain gross. The gladiators smeared their faces with mercury-based vermilion. Titian painted with an arsenic-based mineral called realgar. The British army’s red coats were infused with crushed cochineal beetles. For decades, red Lego bricks contained cadmium, a carcinogen.

More than 200 natural and synthetic red pigments exist today, but each has issues with safety, stability, chromaticity, and/or opacity. Red 254, aka Ferrari red, for example, is safe and popular, but it’s also carbon-based, leaving it susceptible to fading in the rain or the heat. “If we sit out in the sun, it’s not good for us,” says Narayan Khandekar, director of Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation & Technical Studies and curator of the Forbes Pigment Collection. “That’s the same for most organic systems.” One red is stable, nontoxic, and everlasting: iron oxide, or red ocher, the ruddy clay found in Paleolithic cave paintings. “It’s just not bright in the way that people want,” Khandekar says.

A new pigment can generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually, affecting product categories from plastics to cosmetics to cars to construction. The most commercially successful blue, phthalocyanine, is found in eye shadow, hair gel, even the cars on British railways. Subramanian’s blue appears to be superior, but that doesn’t mean it has made him rich. What began as a scientific pursuit has opened up a whole new set of challenges getting YInMn approved, produced, and on the market.

With that process in motion, Subramanian, more scientist than chief executive, is now hunting for a similarly safe, inorganic red derivative of YInMn—something that could put Ferrari red, which is worth an estimated $300 million annually, well in its rearview mirror. Mark Ryan, marketing manager at Shepherd Color Co. in Cincinnati, says whoever finds such a red “wouldn’t have to come into work the next day.”

Told of Ryan’s promised reward, Subramanian chuckles. “I’d still come in to work,” he says. “I love what I do.”

Subramanian is 64 and short, with a slight paunch and a dark mustache that curls down the sides of his mouth. Raised in Chennai, on the southeastern coast of India, he developed a fascination with the makeup of objects by examining beautiful seashells that had washed ashore. “How does nature make these things?” he would ask himself. It wasn’t until much later that he began asking how the shells got their colors.

Technically speaking, colors are the visual sensates of light as it’s bent or scattered or reflected off the atomic makeup of an object. Modern computers can display about 16.8 million of them, far more than people can see or printers can reproduce. To transform a digital or imagined color into something tangible requires a pigment. “Yes, you have this fabulous blue,” says Laurie Pressman, vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, which assists companies with color strategies for branding or products. “But wait, can I actually create the blue in velvet, silk, cotton, rayon, or coated paper stock?

“It’s not just the color,” she adds. “It’s the chemical composition of the color. And can that composition actually be realized in the material I’m going to apply it to?”

Out of the oven came a blue so radiant, so fantastic, it appeared almost extraterrestrial

This limitation restricts the pool of pigments available to the garment, construction, tech, and other industries. A single one, titanium dioxide, accounts for almost two-thirds of the pigments produced globally; valued at about $13.2 billion, it’s responsible for the crisp whiteness of traffic lines, toothpaste, and powdered doughnuts. Getting other colors has historically meant incorporating dangerous inorganic elements or compounds, such as lead, cobalt, or even cyanide. In recent years, health and environmental regulations have created a heavy push toward more benign organic pigments, leading researchers to discover plenty of blacks, yellows, greens. Blue is a different story.

YInMn blue powder.
PHOTOGRAPHER: IAN ALLEN FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Subramanian entered the annals of pigment lore even though he wasn’t looking for a pigment or even mixing ingredients thought capable of making a distinctive color. He and his co-investigators were after electronics—specifically a multiferroic, a material that’s both electrically and magnetically polarized, which is useful for computing. The yttrium began as pale white, the indium oxide black, and the manganese a bilious yellow. One of Subramanian’s postdoctoral students, Andrew Smith, ground them to gray, placed the blend in a small dish, and stuck it in a furnace heated to 2,200F. Twelve hours later, out of the oven came a deep, vibrant, intoxicating blue. It was so radiant, so fantastic, it appeared almost extraterrestrial—the ripest Venusian blueberry, cleaned, polished, and glowing from within.

“What the heck happened?” asked Subramanian when he saw it.

“I did exactly what you told me to do!” Smith said.

“Are you sure you made the right one?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s try it again.”

Subramanian knew a little something about discovery. After getting his doctorate in chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras, he’d spent three decades researching solid-state materials chemistry at DuPont Co., essentially studying the composition of anything that wasn’t a liquid. He had 54 patents to his name, mostly involving superconductors, thermoelectric materials, and other esoterica compelling only to a narrow band of chemists concerned with electronics. Nothing colorful. But Subramanian could tell something was up with this.

He called some colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “You’ve got to see this to believe it,” he said. They didn’t share his extracurricular fascination.

Different concentrations of manganese lead to different saturations and densities of the color.
PHOTOGRAPHER: IAN ALLEN FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

“I’d never seen a color like that in my life,” he recalls. “I’ve made so many oxides. Superconductors are always black or brown or sometimes yellow. Never made this.” It was as though he’d crossbred tomatoes with onions and sprouted a cantaloupe. “I was always worried, is this true? Am I dreaming?”

Blue is one of nature’s most abundant tones, but it’s proved hard for human hands to create. When the ancient Egyptians tried to replicate the deep, oceanic tone of ultramarine to adorn tombs, papyrus, and art, they wound up with something more like turquoise. During the Renaissance, ultramarine could be costlier than gold, because the lapis lazuli from which it derives was mined in remote Afghanistan. (Michelangelo nevertheless scored some for the Sistine Chapel ceiling.) The first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian blue, or ferric ferrocyanide, wasn’t discovered until the early 18th century, by a German chemist trying to make red. Since then, many common blues (cerulean, midnight, aquamarine, smalt) have contained traces of cobalt, a suspected carcinogen.

Subramanian and Smith began testing their compound by dunking it into acid; they were pleased to find it didn’t dissolve. YInMn also proved to be inert, unfading, and nontoxic. It was more durable than ultramarine and Prussian blue, safer than cobalt blue, lighter than phthalocyanine blue, darker than Victoria blue. It was remarkably heat-reflecting, potentially allowing whatever object it coated to remain cool under the sun. Subramanian started keeping two wooden birdhouses positioned beneath a pair of heated lamps on a table in his office. One of the roofs was painted with equal parts black chromium oxide and cobalt blue; the other was black mixed with YInMn blue. The YInMn house stayed around 55 degrees cooler than its counterpart.

Subramanian wrote a paper describing his blue’s properties, eventually publishing it in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and filed for a patent (No. 8,282,728, issued in October 2012 to Subramanian, Smith, and a colleague). Word that he’d fathered some sort of new blue generated media attention—and corporate suitors in turn. Subramanian was surprised by the interest and quickly applied for more government funding. “I thought everything was known about this,” he says. “Who was going to give me money to do research on pigments?”

Mixing together yttrium, indium, and manganese to make YInMn.
PHOTOGRAPHER: IAN ALLEN FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

There was more at stake than he initially grasped. The research company Ceresana estimates that pigments are a $30 billion industry, headlined by major chemical companies such as Lanxess, BASF, Venator (a spinoff from Huntsman), and Chemours (a spinoff from DuPont). High-performance pigments—the most colorful, stable, and durable ones—are a rapidly growing market segment, accounting for almost a sixth of the total value in 2016, according to Smithers Rapra Ltd. Demand is rising as lead-based pigments are phased out and emerging markets put high-performance ones in industrial and building coatings.

A safe, durable, environmentally friendly blue ought to be enormously lucrative. It’s overwhelmingly America’s favorite color, according to Pressman of the Pantone Color Institute. “Blue is that concept of hope, promise, dependability, stability, calm, and cool,” she says. “We think of it as a color of constancy and truth. It’s one of the most approachable colors, the color that’s the most comfortable.” Blue is central to the brand imaging of Ikea, Ford, Walmart, and Facebook. It’s on our refrigerator shelves, our walls, our clothes. Two-thirds of Major League Baseball teams feature blue on their uniforms. Blue is everywhere.

The companies calling Subramanian had plenty of ideas for YInMn. HP wanted to know if the pigment could be converted to an ink. Chanel was interested in it for cosmetics. Merck wondered about skin care. Nike was curious whether it could be used in sneaker leather to keep feet cool. Subcontractors to companies working on self-driving cars thought YInMn’s reflective properties might improve the vehicles’ sensors.

Pigment sellers were interested, too. Shepherd Color Co. sent representatives to Oregon State within a week of the paper’s publication, then spent two years testing YInMn for environmental resilience, regulatory fitness, and cost. The next step was licensing. The patent belonged to Subramanian, but Oregon State was entitled to split the royalties because the discovery had occurred in a university-owned laboratory. Shepherd won the exclusive license in 2015 and began preparing to produce half-ton batches for what it decided was the most viable market: industrial coatings for sidings and roofs. (The company declined to disclose the terms of the deal.) Last September, eight years after Subramanian’s discovery, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally approved YInMn for commercial sale in industrial coatings and plastics. Shepherd swiftly went to market.

PHOTOGRAPHER: IAN ALLEN FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

A natural next step would be for Shepherd to submit an application to be listed on the EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act inventory, which would approve it for all applications—potentially including some of the ones in which Nike et al were interested. But Shepherd has yet to apply. So far, YInMn’s only other forays into the market have been from Crayola LLC, whose first new crayon in a decade, Bluetiful, was purportedly “inspired” by YInMn—Shepherd wouldn’t comment on whether the company is paying royalties—and Derivan, the Australian paint maker, which has transformed the pigment into an acrylic that’s being offered to artists at a handful of retailers, on a sample basis.

The early market for Shepherd has been limited somewhat by its high price, a function of the cost of indium, a metal primarily used in the clear, thin, conductive layer of smartphone touchscreens. For this purpose it needs to be exceptionally pure, which, coupled with high demand, meant it was selling for $720 per kilogram at the end of 2017. (The figure for manganese was $1.74.) As a result, Shepherd lists YInMn blue at $1,000 per kilogram, by far its most expensive pigment. Ryan, Shepherd’s marketing manager, jokes that unless an indium meteor crashes into southwestern Ohio, the price will remain high.

That doesn’t mean it can’t generate a lot of money. Geoffrey Peake, R&D manager at Shepherd, says YInMn and others in its class, complex inorganic colored pigments, are the company’s most durable offerings. As paint coatings, they can come with a warranty of up to 50 years—well worth the investment for metal roofing or skyscraper facades. Other applications, and lower prices, will have to wait until researchers at Shepherd or Oregon State can replace the indium without dulling the blue.

The slow pace of testing and regulatory approval, plus attorney fees and other licensing expenses, has meant that, almost nine years after his discovery, Subramanian still hasn’t seen any royalties. Still, YInMn has rejuvenated his career and given it new direction. “If we can create a beautiful red pigment, which is stable and nontoxic, it’s going to be a big hit,” he says. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

Patent No. 8,282,728 is for something potentially far more valuable than YInMn itself. In fact, it only briefly mentions “intense blue color.” Subramanian’s true invention was the crystal structure—or the atomic arrangement—of the material, called trigonal bipyramidal coordination. The manganese imparts the blueness, and by adjusting its proportion in the compound, you can lighten or darken its tint. But, as Subramanian’s jars of lilac and mossy green demonstrate, the structure is also capable of absorbing (and, conversely, reflecting) other colors. This discovery was like finding a hidden door in a bookshelf.

Jun Li, a research associate at Subramanian’s lab, says they initially thought that simply decreasing the amount of indium would produce red. But this wasn’t as simple as it sounded. Most red pigments are semiconductors, and retaining their conductivity requires some finagling. One approach is to adjust the distance between atoms in the composite, thereby altering the electrons’ absorption energy when they receive light to allow the compound to absorb blue—and therefore reflect red. But doing this, Li explains, could equally return the material to its original, flaccid gray. “You can try to predict,” she says. “But you just never know.”

$4.76 billion: The market for high-performance pigments, YInMn’s class, in 2016

Reducing or replacing the indium would also make a new red cheaper (and potentially lead to an indium-less offshoot of YInMn blue). The inability to keep costs in line with demand scuttled the most promising red of recent decades, a deep shade discovered in the late 1990s by two researchers in Germany. They’d been looking for a replacement for cadmium, a naturally occurring heavy metal found in the Earth’s crust. In paint, cadmium had long been considered safe and durable; its brilliance enlivened the works of Monet, van Gogh, and Munch. But it had grown notorious, known to leach into the environment during production and to contaminate food supplies. A 1997 study identified traces of cadmium in children’s backpacks, toys, and headphones. (The metal has since been found in Miley Cyrus brand jewelry and seats from Highbury, Arsenal F.C.’s former home stadium.)

The German researchers’ red used a compound called perovskites (CaTaO2N and LaTaON2) in place of cadmium. In an article published in Nature in 2000, they said their inorganic pigment seemed like “a promising replacement” for cadmium-based colors. But the mixture proved too expensive to sell in abundance (and, incidentally, required toxic ammonia gas for synthesis) and never reached the commercial market.

The European Union has considered banning the sale of cadmium pigments but, facing pressure from artists’ groups, ultimately decided against it. As did the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which recommended “acceptable daily intake” levels of cadmium after citizens petitioned for it to be regulated. Cadmium currently sits seventh of 275 on the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s priority list of hazardous materials. (Cobalt is No. 51.)

For Subramanian, success would mean discovering a red capable of supplanting not only cadmium but also synthetic dyes such as Natural Red 4—which the Food and Drug Administration approves as safe for consumption, but which don’t tend to last in paint coatings—and carmine, a pigment derived from crushed insects that has caught the attention of Peta, and that might make you think twice before buying that lipstick.

Red might not be America’s favorite shade, but it’s the color of courage and seduction, joy and revolution, and it remains culturally and commercially significant the world over. Pressman says it’s the boldest color outside of black, so it evokes power and authority (a good quality in stop signs). Red cars make up only 8 percent of the automotive population, but that leaves plenty of room to make money, especially given the color’s prevalence in flashy, expensive sports cars.

Subramanian wants to make a red that can strike these notes while being so safe that it can sit on store shelves undisguised. “I go to Home Depot and all they have are color numbers,” he says. “Nobody knows what it is, chemistry-wise. It is amazing. We take it for granted. We see a color and say, ‘OK, it must come from a pigment.’ But nobody knows what is really behind the color.”

At lunch at a pub down the street from his lab, Subramanian mentions a recent trip he and his wife, an artist, took to New York. “We went to the Guggenheim,” he says. “I used to hate going to museums. I’d tell her to go without me, and I’d go to a nearby university and visit the chemistry department.” But on this trip, he stopped in front of Kandinsky’s Blue Mountain and gawked at the ultramarine used to paint the arresting peak. “It’s really amazing how much it has changed my life,” Subramanian says of YInMn.

The walls inside the pub are painted with a dull, rusty red. He takes a knowing, unimpressed glance around. “Iron oxide,” he says. “Definitely.”

Four disks of YInMn after being baked in the oven. The center disk is what the compressed mixture looks like before baking.
PHOTOGRAPHER: IAN ALLEN FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

He professes again to be unconcerned that he isn’t getting rich from YInMn. He’s proud that his 57th career patent is, if not exactly tangible, at least vaguely relatable to the average person. A stranger who recognized him as the inventor of a new color approached him at an airport recently and remarked, “That’s a very pretty blue. How did you find it?”

The difficult thing about pigment research is that, even after the most meticulous planning and scrupulous strategizing, you still don’t know for sure what you’ve created until you open the oven door. Looking for electronics, Subramanian wound up with a new blue. Maybe while looking for red, he jokes, he’ll stumble on some new electronics.

At least this time he has a concrete starting point and a sense of direction. Back in the lab, he picks up the jar of burnt orange. Asked if it makes him feel confident he’ll find his red, he smiles.

“No,” he replies. “We’re only going towards it.”