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Press Release 94-40
Lori J. Rachul
(Bus: 216/433-8806)

NASA Technology Utilized for State-of-the-Art Restorations

Cleveland, OH -- NASA's Lewis Research Center, in concert with the Cleveland Museum of Art, has developed a varnish (lacquer) removal technique that will enable museums and art collectors to more safely restore paintings. This non-contact method is less harsh than traditional methods, which not only remove varnish but often remove paint pigments and cause paint to swell.

Lewis' Technology Utilization Office began investigating varnish removal techniques after discussing conservation needs with the Cleveland Museum of Art. Over the years the museum's conservation department encountered numerous varnishes that could not be safely removed using traditional solvents and was eager to investigate new alternatives. "Most artists before the Impressionists intentionally varnished their paintings to protect them and make the colors appear richer," explained Cleveland Museum of Art's Chief Conservator Bruce Christman. "As varnish ages it tends to yellow, causing the painting to lose its perception of depth. Restoration typically involves removing the varnish with organic solvents, which may cause swelling or leaching of the paint layers. We began working with Lewis to develop a new method of restoration to use on varnishes that cannot be removed with conventional methods."

A Lewis team experimented with a thermal energy atomic oxygen plasma, originally developed to simulate the space environment in low Earth orbit, and discovered that it easily removed organic materials from paint and painted canvas samples.

"The oxygen atoms and ions in the thermal energy plasma chemically react with the surface and remove any organic material present," explained Sharon Rutledge, Electro-Physics Branch. "Atomic oxygen will not react with oxides, so most paint pigments won't be affected by the reaction." For paintings containing organic pigments, the exposure can be carefully timed to stop the removal short of the pigment.

According to Rutledge, tests of the atomic oxygen method on a painted canvas test sample and color samples from the museum show great promise. "The lacquer was easily removed from all the samples and no noticeable change in appearance was observed after the fresh lacquer was applied," she said. "Most importantly, there was no removal or disturbance of the paint pigment on the surface."

With the development of the atomic oxygen technique, Lewis is discussing collaborative activities with the conservation department at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts to restore a Monet painting damaged in a fire in the 1950s. Lewis is also pursuing partnerships with the Smithsonian Institute Analytical Laboratory and Buffalo State College's Conservation Department to restore other paintings damaged by smoke and fire. "This is another good example of how technology developed for space applications can have great potential for applications in areas that are often seemingly unrelated to aerospace technology," commented Bruce Banks, chief of the Electro-Physics Branch. "Such unique applications serve as a reminder to us that we should always keep our eyes open to diverse opportunities for utilizing technology, which may on the surface appear only relevant to space applications."

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