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Protecting paintings with flow chemistry

By , 21 November 2019

Gloved hand painting varnish with a brush onto a work of art.

CSIRO tech protects this painting!
Image: courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria

Have you ever wondered why many old paintings are so shiny? It’s not the paint they used – it’s a varnish that’s applied on top of the paint. These chemicals are designed to enhance and protect precious artworks. And CSIRO just formulated a new varnish that’s taking the art world by storm!

A good varnish is clear, so you can see the painting underneath. It must be chemically stable, and not change the paint it’s applied to. And it needs to be removable. That way, if it cracks or changes colour, conservators can replace the varnish with a new chemical without damaging the paint underneath.

A new varnish called MS3 ticks all the boxes. Developed by CSIRO in collaboration with experts from the National Gallery of Victoria, it’s being used on paintings from Rembrandt to van Dyck. The team is not just proud of the product – they’re also proud of how it’s made.

Varnishes are traditionally made in batches, measuring ingredients and mixing them in containers called batch reactors. MS3 uses a different process, known as flow chemistry.

To combine ingredients, a constant flow of chemicals is pumped through mixing tubes. This new technique mixes more evenly and is much less likely to catch fire or explode. And if you want more varnish, you don’t need to make a whole new batch – you just leave the equipment on a bit longer!

Last month, CSIRO opened FloWorks, a purpose-built laboratory for flow chemistry. The scientists there have all kinds of ideas for new chemicals to develop and sell. So the future is looking bright, for old paintings and new chemicals alike!

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