Field of Science

Red Dwarfs

A version of this was written as a guest post for an artist friend's blog.

If you see a colored compound in chemistry, you can almost bet that it will contain a transition metal. Though we think of metals as being a shiny grey hue (with a few exceptions, gold being one), metals are key elements in producing colors for artist. The visible frequencies of light are relatively low in energy, and conveniently correspond to the small gaps in energy that electrons can leap in metals (what chemists call d to d transitions). Cobalt blue, one of my favorite hues, is (as its name suggests) a cobalt salt: CoAl2O4. To get different colors, you have to use different metal salts. You can get a brilliant, though not long-lasting, yellow pigment using lead chromate, the same chrome yellow that Vincent Van Gogh made famous. Tweaking colors to get slightly different hues requires either mixing materials or finding a different salt altogether, the gaps that the electrons leap over when they absorb light aren't adjustable.

But there are other ways to capitalize on the properties of metals to create color. Red stained glass has been made for centuries by adding gold to molten glass and carefully controlling the temperature. The gold clusters together in small particles which then become evenly distributed and suspended in the glass.

These tiny clusters are called nanoparticles, because they are 100 nanometers or less in size. One nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter, the period in this sentence is about a million nanometers across, the little gold balls in red glass are about 25 nanometers in diameter. (The prefix nano, comes from the Greek word for "dwarf," hence the title of this post.)

The gold nanoparticles are not dissolved in the glass, but form a colloid. And one property of colloids is that they scatter light. Different frequencies of light scatter differently, which is why the sky is blue, though the scattering of light by a colloid is a slightly different process. (Scattering isn't the only process involved in the color, but unless you really want to fly off the math cliff with me, let's leave talk of quantum dots and wavefunctions to another day.)

The color of light that a colloid scatters depends on the size and shapes of the particles dispersed. It turns out just by varying the size and shape of the particles involved you can tune your gold nanoparticles to be red, red-violet or even green and many colors in between!

If you are interested in knowing more about the history and chemistry of color, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color by Philip Ball is a terrific introduction. He has a recent blog post about color here. For a readable introduction to nanoparticles, quantum dots and color, try this article in the NY Times.


  1. If you see a colored compound in chemistry, you can almost bet that it will contain a transition metal.

    My anthraquinones would beg to differ.

  2. Indeed...that's why I said "almost bet"! And the colors in your anthraquinones get more air time in my quantum class than the transition metals get...

  3. This article is so complete, it's almost enchanting. I found it as an undergrad, and it's stayed with me a lifetime. "The causes of color" Kurt Nassau. Scientific American 1980. Volume 243, Issue 4, 1980, Pages 124-154


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