Can Nanotech Help Save Metallic Artifacts?

It’s already being used to help restore and preserve paintings, but the science can also be used to keep a museum’s stores of metallic artifacts from decomposing over time.

Q&A with Eric Breitung, senior research scientist, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There’s no question that the potential of nanotech in art preservation is growing. The Tate Gallery in London recently completed its NanoRestArt project begun five years ago, which included a consortium of 27 museums, universities, and chemical companies and was financially supported by the European Union. The goal was to find ways nanotech could help preserve art made with polymers and polymer derived materials.

But it’s not just polymers and paintings that can be helped. Eric Breitung spends his days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a senior research scientist trying to keep priceless art and artifacts from deteriorating. As a chemist, he brings a wealth of knowledge on polymers to the job having spent a number of years working on thin films and coatings at GE’s R&D Center. He has more recently turned his attention to metal preservation and how nanotech can help to preserve things like Gladiator helmets or Golden Age cutlery.

 

Why do you believe, based on your research into the area, that nanotech is a good choice for silver restoration and/or protection? 

The atomic layer deposition coatings I’m investigating as a possible anti-tarnish coating for metal objects was interesting primarily because the technology allows for ultra-thin (nano) layers of conformal and nearly pinhole free coatings to be deposited on very high aspect ratio topographies.  Art is rarely as flat as a silicon wafer, but the way this technology deposits a coating, unlike any other coating method I’m aware of, should be able to coat very topographically diverse surfaces or highly textured or 3-dimensional surfaces with essentially the same thickness of coating.  Basic alumina coatings had already been developed by Beneq Oy in Finland, which seemed quite promising in their ability to be deposited on silver and not change the appearance of the metal.

 

'Art is rarely as flat as a silicon wafer, but the way this technology deposits a coating, unlike any other coating method I’m aware of, should be able to coat very topographically diverse surfaces or highly textured or 3-dimensional surfaces with essentially the same thickness of coating.'

 

What are the current hurdles to adoption of the science by museums and other institutes? 

Silver art is almost never pure silver and most has likely been polished, burnished, or otherwise treated during what might be hundreds of years of its existence, making the surface contain polish particles, waxes, oils, synthetic polymers, and a wide range of alloying metals, so developing a coating that is thick enough to protect the art but not affect the appearance remains a challenge.

Adoption of new technology or preservation treatments often takes decades of experimentation and evidence building to convince conservators and curators that the technology will not fundamentally change the art and is fully removable or reversible as well as being at least as effective as currently used anti-tarnish options such as nitro-cellulose coatings.

 

How are you working with these challenges? 

Collaborating with the Rijksmuseum and colleagues at Veeco, we are investigating the surface properties of various silver alloys as well as the types of coatings that might provide transparent and removable options for those alloys.  We are also providing conservators at various museums with samples to conduct field testing on the coatings’ ability to protect silver in museums.

 

You have extensive experience working for General Electric in polymers. What brought you to the Met and this particular area of study? 

My experience at GE was to add functionality to or affect the properties of polymers using mostly thin films and coatings.  I transitioned from GE after completing a 1-year Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the Met, where I was able to apply my thin films and coatings knowledge to art conservation issues.  I found the people at the Met to be highly dedicated and intense, much like my colleagues at GE, and the problems facing art preservation were equally challenging but given the age of much of the art and the importance of preserving our cultural heritage, the opportunity to focus on an issue for sustained periods of time seemed possible, where I found GE’s focus was more on the development of world-changing technologies, but didn’t tend to allow their scientists the time to entrench themselves in a particular area long enough to discover and develop them.

  'I found the people at the Met to be highly dedicated and intense, much like my colleagues at GE, and the problems facing art preservation were equally challenging but given the age of much of the art and the importance of preserving our cultural heritage, the opportunity to focus on an issue for sustained periods of time seemed possible...'

What do you like most about your work? 

Freedom to pursue creative solutions to technical issues while working with bright and motivated colleagues on a shared goal of improving our ability to prolong the useful life of our collective cultural heritage.

 

About Eric Breitung:

Eric Breitung focuses on modern preservation materials and museum environment issues. He earned a PhD in physical organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked in the polymer materials laboratory on thin films and coatings at General Electric's Research and Development Center for 10 years, during which he spent one year as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at The Met. He then worked on textile dye analysis at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, followed by becoming senior scientist at the Library of Congress. There he focused on modern materials and development of materials analysis tools.