Washington | Scientists have developed a super-sensitive artificial nose, customised specifically to detect pollutants before they could irreversibly damage Disney artwork on an international tour. Many pollutants that are problematic for human beings are also problematic for works of art, said Kenneth Suslick from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For example, pollutants can spur oxidative damage and acid degradation that, in prints or canvases, lead to colour changes or decomposition. Works of art are susceptible to damage at far lower pollutant levels than what is considered acceptable for humans. To protect valuable works of art from these effects, conservators enclose vulnerable pieces in sealed display cases.
Even then some artists’ materials may exhale reactive compounds that accumulate in the cases and damage the art. To counter the accumulation of pollutants, conservators often hide sorbent materials inside display cases that scrub potentially damaging compounds from the enclosed environment. But it is difficult to know precisely when to replace the sorbents.
Suslick had already invented an optoelectronic nose – an array of dyes that change colour when exposed to various compounds. But it is used largely for biomedical purposes, and it can not sniff out the low concentrations of pollutants that damage works of art.
To redesign the nose with the aim of protecting artwork, he approached scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), a private non-profit institution in Los Angeles. At the time, GCI was involved in a research project with the Walt Disney Animation Research Library to investigate the impact of storage environment on their animation cels, which are transparent sheets that artists drew or painted on before computer animation was developed. Such research ultimately could help extend the life of this important collection.
The new sensors would monitor levels of acetic acid and other compounds that emanate from these sheets. Before the exhibit, Drawn from Life: The Art of Disney Animation Studios, hit the road on tour, Suslick recommended placing the sensors in discrete places to monitor the pollution levels both inside and outside of the sealed and framed artworks. If the sensors indicated pollution levels inside the sealed frames were rising, conservators travelling with the Disney exhibit would know to replace the sorbents. An initial analysis of sensor data showed that the sorbents were effective.
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