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How chemistry colors our world

October 21, 2015

By Rob van Daalen

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Free special article collection celebrates Chemistry Week

We perceive color as a result of light interacting with our eyes; the properties of physical objects can alter the way they absorb, reflect and emit light, changing the way we see them. Color is everywhere – including in chemistry. A chemical gets its color by electrons absorbing energy and becoming excited. That excitation absorbs wavelengths of light; what we see is the complementary color of the absorbed wavelengths.

Colors have a huge impact: they are fundamental in art, photography and fashion, they can affect our mood and productivity, and they can even be used in forensic science in the analysis of chemical composition.

National Chemistry Week 2015opens in new tab/window focuses on the theme “Chemistry Colors Our World.” To celebrate the contribution researchers make through the work they publish in Elsevier’s chemistry journals, we have put together a collection of articles that showcase the spectrum of research in this theme. The articles cover everything from analyzing powder quality using color to identifying mystery painters.

From the yellow pigment of silkworms to the red dust of Mars …

Chemistry can help improve manufacturing techniques. Some wild silkworms produce silk that is naturally colored; a mutant of the domestic silkworm, B. mori, can spin yellow cocoons. This naturally colored silk is potentially valuable if it can be processed without damage and fading. A study published in Dyes and Pigments opens in new tab/windowcategorizes the yellow pigment to understand better how the silk could best be processed.

Research in chemistry can also tell us what’s happening on other planets. Mars gets its red glow because of a thin layer of oxidized dust. Despite decades of attention, its geological and climatic implications are still a matter of debate. Research published in Earth and Planetary Science Lettersopens in new tab/window reveals hydroxylated ferric minerals may have a prominent role in the production of the dust.

Back here on Earth, human activity can lead to towns and cities being significantly warmer than surrounding areas. To tackle these urban heat islands,” cool roofs that reflect the sun’s rays can reduce the temperature. A study published in Ceramics Internationalopens in new tab/window presents a new generation of colored glazes, which have the potential to perform better than existing materials.

Colors aren’t just functional – they’re also aesthetic. Art galleries all over Europe have collections of paintings they don’t show publicly because of their doubtful attribution and dating. A study published in Applied Clay Science opens in new tab/windowshows that looking at the presence of clay-based materials in paintings can distinguish those from Italy and central Europe.

These and many other studies show the spectrum of research being done in chemistry to improve manufacturing processes, reduce our impact on the environment and give us a glimpse into the past.

Special Collection: Chemistry Colors our World


To celebrate the excellent research published in Elsevier’s chemistry journals, we have collated article collections that you can read for free in four subject areas: Chemistry, Earth & Energy, Engineering and Materials Science. Here is a selection of 12 articles – with free access until January 15, 2016.

On The Generation of Interferometric Colors in High Purity and Technical Grade Aluminum: An Alternative Green Process for Metal Finishing Industryopens in new tab/window  Yuting Chen, Abel Santos, Daena Ho, Ye Wang, Tushar Kumeria, Junsheng Li, Changhai Wang, Dusan Losic  Electrochimica Acta, August 2015

Dual-nodal PMMA-supported Eu3 +-containing metallopolymer with high color-purity red luminescenceopens in new tab/window  Xinyu Zhang, Zhao Zhang, Lin Liu, Chao Yu, Xingqiang Lü, Xunjin Zhu, Wai-Kwok Wong, Richard A. Jones  Inorganic Chemistry Communications, October 2015

The effect of temperature, pH, and ionic strength on color stability of red wineopens in new tab/window  Zsuzsanna Czibulya, Ibolya Horváth, László Kollár, Martin Pour Nikfardjam, Sándor Kunsági-Máté  Tetrahedron, May 2015

Colour removal from beet molasses by ultrafiltration with activated charcoalopens in new tab/window  Marta Bernal, María O. Ruiz, Ramona M. Geanta, José M. Benito, Isabel Escudero  Chemical Engineering Journal, January 2016

Characterization of the pigment in naturally yellow-colored domestic silkopens in new tab/window  Mingbo Ma, Munir Hussain, Suozhuai Dong, Wenlong Zhou  Dyes and Pigments, January 2016

Evaluation of a digital colour imaging system for assessing the mixture quality of spice powder mixes by comparison with a salt conductivity methodopens in new tab/window  Pooja Shenoy, Fredrik Innings, Kristel Tammel, John Fitzpatrick, Lilia Ahrné  Powder Technology, December 2015

Differentiation between anonymous paintings of the 17th and the early 18th century by composition of clay-based groundsopens in new tab/window  David Hradil, Janka Hradilová, Petr Bezdička, Silvie Švarcová  Applied Clay Science, December 2015

A Noachian source region for the “Black Beauty” meteorite, and a source lithology for Mars surface hydrated dust?opens in new tab/window  P. Beck, A. Pommerol, B. Zanda, L. Remusat, J.P. Lorand, C. Göpel, R. Hewins, S. Pont, E. Lewin, E. Quirico, B. Schmitt, G. Montes-Hernandez, A. Garenne, L. Bonal, O. Proux, J.L. Hazemann, V.F. Chevrier  Earth and Planetary Science Letters, October 2015

Effects of phosphate and silicate on the transformation of hydroxycarbonate green rust to ferric oxyhydroxidesopens in new tab/window  Xionghan Feng, Xiaoming Wang, Mengqiang Zhu, Luuk K. Koopal, Huanhuan Xu, Yan Wang, Fan Liu  Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, December 2015

Design of a cool color glaze for solar reflective tile applicationopens in new tab/window  C. Ferrari, A. Muscio, C. Siligardi, T. Manfredini  Ceramics International, November 2015

The effect of phosphorus and nitrogen co-doped on the synthesis of diamond at high pressure and high temperatureopens in new tab/window  Bingmin Yan, Xiaopeng Jia, Chao Fang, Ning Chen, Yadong Li, Shishuai Sun, Hong-An Ma  International Journal of Refractory Metals and Hard Materials, January 2016

“Green ink in all colors”—Printing ink from renewable resourcesopens in new tab/window  Tobias Robert  Progress in Organic Coatings, January 2015


Rob van Daalen is Senior Publisher for Sustainable Chemistry and Colloid Science at Elsevier.


Rob van Daalen

Senior Publisher for Sustainable Chemistry and Colloid Science


Read more about Rob van Daalen