Nanotech could be the saviour of Old Masters


A two-pronged approach offers an alternative to current painting conservation methods. Andrew Masterson reports.


Current art conservation techniques involve meticulous application of adhesives.
Current art conservation techniques involve meticulous application of adhesives.
Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

Nanotechnology may be the key to extending the life of paintings, research shows.

Much of the world’s cultural heritage and history is embodied in the form of art by renowned painters – and all of it is subject to the brute processes of chemistry. Over time, the cellulose fibres which comprise the canvas degrade, and if no intervention is made the precious art inevitably discolours, wrinkles or absorbs unwanted moisture.

Current methods for halting the slow demise of great artworks rests often on the careful application of surface adhesive, combined with strengthening layers on the back of the canvas. These methods work, but are invasive and difficult to rectify if anything goes wrong.

Now, a team led by chemical engineer Krzysztof Kolman from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has designed an alternative approach, which combines two nanotechnology strategies.

In a paper published in the journal Applied Nano Materials, the researchers describe using cellulose nanofibrils (CNF) to strengthen the painted surface of canvases, and polyelectrolyte-treated silica nanoparticles (SNP) to reinforce individual canvas (or paper) fibres.

Both nano-substances are applied in a single treatment, reducing the amount of human handling required.

Kolman and colleagues used electron microscopy and micro X-ray fluorescence to check the results of the procedure. They report that the CNF forms a film across a painting’s surface, increasing its firmness without negatively affecting its flexibility. The SNP penetrated deeper, producing higher stiffness in fibres beneath the paint.

The treatment increased the weight of the canvasses tested by less than 5%.

Although only at proof-of-concept stage, the scientists suggest the method promises an alternative to existing conservation strategies.

  1. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acsanm.8b00262
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