Can graphene, a “wonderful material” that is an atom thick, prevent valuable works of art from fading? Scientists say it’s promising

To non-chemical engineers, an invisible protective cloak one atom thick that blocks oxygen can look like science fiction – the kind of weapon a supervillain would wield to hold earth’s ransom. for harmful purposes. But new research published in Nature Nanotechnology confirms that graphene, which is real, can protect some works of art from fading.

Graphene is a two-dimensional carbon allotrope whose molecules bind together by a phenomenon called Van der Waals forces. It is invisible to the eye but forms a honeycomb pattern under the microscope and can be extracted from the surface of the graphite using a piece of duct tape. Hailed as a “miracle material” since its isolation in a single-layered form in 2004, graphene has many potential uses. China seems convinced of its military and aerospace promise, and it is being used to protect roads in the UK. Graphene is also used for everything from filtering toxins from the water to creating a “camera” to capture the activity of heart cells. It was also used in painting.

“It’s super tough and stiff, incredibly thin, almost completely transparent, extremely light and an incredible conductor of electricity and heat,” says Costas Galiotis, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Patras in Greece. “It could be compared to an invisible veil that has the ability to adhere to any clean surface.”

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers (1887) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Photo by DeAgostini / Getty Images.

Galiotis, a board member of the European Union’s flagship graphene research initiative, and his colleagues have studied the usefulness of graphene in museums and galleries, the properties of which he calls “remarkable and exciting ”.

Graphene offers several material advantages: it can be produced in large, thin sheets; it blocks ultraviolet light; and it is impermeable to oxygen, moisture and other corrosive agents. Layered over a work of art, researchers have argued that graphene can delay irreversible discoloration due to exposure to light and oxidizing agents (like air). Their results revealed that graphene can prevent discoloration by up to 70%.

The authors cite the discoloration of Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, “in which crystals of red lead turned into white lead due to the reaction of paint impurities with light and carbon dioxide,” as a great example of what they hope graphene can deter.

The Galiotis team studied the protective effect of graphene on what they say is the equivalent of 200 years of exposure. Using both mockups and actual artwork donated by artists with very light sensitive inks, they have found that it seems to work best on artwork with smoother surfaces, such as photographs and graphic arts. For the flat works, the researchers used a “roll-to-roll” technique, which they modeled on commercial lamination, but the deposition of “veils” of graphene on rough or raised works of art, there including paintings with uneven brush strokes and very fragile works, can be difficult. For these, the researchers investigated a non-contact approach using graphene-enhanced glass, which does not touch art and which they say can protect against fading 40% better than standard museum glass without hindering transparency. And, unlike commercial polymer coatings, such as archival varnishes or spray films with UV protection, it can be easily removed.

Above, details of the table entitled “Triton and Nereid”, before and after 130 hours of accelerated aging under visible light. Below, colorimetric data of old pink and light blue dyes, over unprotected areas (left) and graphene protected areas (right). Extract from “Preventing fading of works of art with graphene veils”, published in Nature Nanotechnology, July 2021, courtesy of Springer Nature Limited.

According to Galiotis, the European art preservation community has expressed interest in this approach; However, he admits, some are reluctant to apply graphene to old paints “because of the element of risk that is always present when you lay even an invisible coat on a work of art.” Contemporary artists can lay a graphene membrane over a painting before framing and finishing the job, he says.

Another sticking point for critics – or better, a point of non-stick – is the researchers’ claim that removing graphene is as simple as “using a soft rubber eraser without damaging the work of art “, as they write it in the paper. Galiotis says he and his colleagues demonstrate that erasing in this way does not affect art under graphene. This was true for graphic art and ink drawings, but erasing graphene from a graphite drawing would presumably result in the loss of the baby with the bathwater.

Chris McGlinchey, a senior researcher at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center, who was not involved in this article, says there is promise that graphene can be easily erased. “However, some works of art are so fragile that they cannot be cleaned this way,” he says. “I’m sure the authors are thinking about these questions if they want to see graphene used more widely for practical use.”

Preserving art for future generations is part of the mandate of restorers, so “demonstrating as proof of principle that graphene can prevent light-induced damage suggests that it may be a useful tool in their toolkit for help accomplish this for selected works of art, ”he says. But he fears that graphene’s barrier to oxygen and vapor might paradoxically cause problems for some traditional art materials.

Installation view of Jackson Pollock's Number 1, 1949: A Conservation Treatment, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Brian Forrest.

Chris Stavroudis works on Jackson Pollock Number 1, 1949 in the gallery of an exhibition dedicated to the painting’s conservation in 2018. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Brian Forrest.

“Oil painting changes over decades long after the artist considers the work to be done, and these changes produce small molecules that would normally volatilize,” he says. “If this process is removed, these degradation compounds could become trapped under the graphene layer and possibly cause a hazy appearance.”

Unanticipated warping and stress can also develop. “This could happen if only one side is covered with a moisture resistant layer and the other is allowed to absorb and release moisture as the humidity fluctuates,” adds McGlinchey.

Graphene may find more useful applications with modern art media, McGlinchey says. He also thinks researchers should investigate whether graphene could be applied to vintage electronic media to increase its longevity.

Only time will tell if graphene will become a standard tool in any museum curator’s kit. Additional video attached to the document shows the Mona Lisa smiling as she is treated with graphene, while her twin, who does not receive such a coating, frowns as she fades over time.

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