This British Zoologist Wants to Reinvent Color

Andrew Parker has produced some of the brightest hues in the world. So, what’s his secret?

Andrew Parker, an English inventor, artist and zoologist at the University of Oxford, thinks color is not a thing. The world’s best colors, he says, come not from pigments or dyes, but from materials arranged into crystalline nanostructures that scatter light into “structural colors.” And when the $36 billion color industry—which is focused on dyes and pigments—takes notice, Parker think, we will have hues far richer and more dazzling than the comparatively drab tones that surround us today.

Structural color was first documented in the 17th century, in peacock feathers, but it is only since the invention of the electron microscope, in the 1930s, that we have known how it works. Structural color is completely different from pigment. Pigments are molecules that absorb light, except for the wavelengths corresponding to the visible color, which are scattered. In contrast, the intricate nanoscale architectures of structural color, some only a little larger than an individual atom, do not absorb light but reflect it into particular wavelengths. The results are vivid, often shimmery.

Parker has been working for over two decades on a method to replicate these nanostructures in a lab, to produce the most brilliant of nature’s colors artificially. “The brightest colors,” says Parker, “are being produced from completely transparent materials.” He was determined to replicate this phenomenon. Many pigments are toxic, and some are mined from the earth. Plus, creating products based on principles that have evolved in nature “helps people learn a bit more about the natural world,” he says.

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