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An Atomic Innovation for Artwork
fire-damaged paintings The same corrosive attributes of atomic oxygen that eat away at spacecraft are able to remove the layers of soot and smoke that cover fire-damaged paintings.
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painting of Mary Magdalene Parishioners at St. Alban Church, in Cleveland, thought this painting of Mary Magdalene was ruined after an arson fire destroyed much of the property.
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Atomic oxygen, a corrosive space gas, finds many applications on Earth.

Oxygen may be one of the most common substances on the planet, but recent space research has unveiled a surprising number of new applications for the gas, including restoring damaged artwork.

It all started with a critical problem facing would-be spacecraft: the gasses just outside the Earth’s atmosphere are highly corrosive. While most oxygen atoms on Earth’s surface occur in pairs, in space the pair is often split apart by short-wave solar radiation, producing singular atoms. Because oxygen so easily bonds with other substances, it is highly corrosive in atomic form, and it gradually wears away the protective layering on orbiting objects such as satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).

To combat this destructive gas, NASA recreated it on Earth and applied it to different materials to see what would prove most resistant. The coatings developed through these experiments are currently used on the ISS.

During the tests, however, scientists also discovered applications for atomic oxygen that have since proved a success in the private sector.

Breathing New Life into Damaged Art

In their experiments, NASA researchers quickly realized that atomic oxygen interacted primarily with organic materials. Soon after, they partnered with churches and museums to test the gas’s ability to restore fire-damaged or vandalized art. Atomic oxygen was able to remove soot from fire-damaged artworks without altering the paint.

It was first tested on oil paintings: In 1989, an arson fire at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland nearly destroyed a painting of Mary Magdalene. Although the paint was blistered and charred, atomic oxygen treatment plus a reapplication of varnish revitalized it. And in 2002, a fire at St. Stanislaus Church (also in Cleveland) left two paintings with soot damage, but atomic oxygen removed it.

Buoyed by the successes with oil paints, the engineers also applied the restoration technique to acrylics, watercolors, and ink. At Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, where an Andy Warhol painting, Bathtub, has been kissed by a lipstick-wearing vandal, a technician successfully removed the offending pink mark with a portable atomic oxygen gun. The only evidence that the painting had been treated—a lightened spot of paint—was easily restored by a conservator.

A Genuine Difference-maker

When the successes in art restoration were publicized, forensic analysts who study documents became curious about using atomic oxygen to detect forgeries. They found that it can assist analysts in figuring out whether important documents such as checks or wills have been altered, by revealing areas of overlapping ink created in the modifications.

The gas has biomedical applications as well. Atomic oxygen technology can be used to decontaminate orthopedic surgical hip and knee implants prior to surgery. Such contaminants contribute to inflammation that can lead to joint loosening and pain, or even necessitate removing the implant. Previously, there was no known chemical process that fully removed these inflammatory toxins without damaging the implants. Atomic oxygen, however, can oxidize any organic contaminants and convert them into harmless gases, leaving a contaminant-free surface.

Thanks to NASA’s work, atomic oxygen—once studied in order to keep it at bay in space—is being employed in surprising, powerful ways here on Earth.

To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2007.