The IMAT project: first application of carbon nanotubes in art conservation


In November 2011, the IMAT project under the European Commission’s 7th Framework Program (FP7) has been launched with a kick of meeting held at the University of Florence in Italy. During the three year length of the project, coordinated by the University of Florence, a European consortium of researchers representing expertise in conservation, nanotechnology, and thermo-electrical engineering will advance technologies will invent and develop new technology and devices specifically designed for highly accurate mild heating in conservation of artworks and other cultural heritage assets.


The Challenge: The advancement of conservation materials and instrumentation is of fundamental importance in the process of preserving artworks and other cultural heritage assets. Sophisticated and accurate instrumentation allows conservators to treat artworks more selectively and within the margins of minimal intervention and risk, while achieving the maximum result.


The IMAT project focuses and responds to a critical omission in current conservation treatment instrumentation for mild heating.  Highly accurate and versatile application of mild heat is essential for success in most structural treatments of various cultural heritage objects (paintings, works on paper, textiles, objects, and others), yet devices presently available to conservators in all areas of the profession are unable to guarantee the desired accuracy, control or uniformity.  The IMAT project will develop nanotechnologies to be integrated in the creation of a series of new highly accurate, versatile and mobile “smart” mild heating technologies and devices, each designed for specific use in art conservation with extraordinary properties made possible with the innovative, yet-to-be-created, highly conductive carbon nanotube (CNT) materials.


Project Objectives: The IMAT project will research the application of carbon nanotubes for mild heating, focusing on their thermal and electrical properties that offer new opportunities to design radically new accurate mobile mild heating technology and devices - in the form of flexible mat heaters - with desirable qualities for art conservation. Such heating mats fitted with the to-be-designed sensors and controls could be designed in ultra thin, transparent, and woven forms, and may be designed as permeable to gases membranes to permit the migration of vapours and airflow so often used in combination with mild heating in treatments. The project will involve art conservators during the initial design and field-testing phases so as to gain the best insight into design improvements, to optimize the range of potential applications of the IMAT and to develop new conservation methodology associated with the new technology.


Methodology: The project was conceived with a research-based objective and with a bottom-up design format of the IMAT concept and design, unique in the field, as well as with the associated methodology in order to improve the quality, accessibility and cost effectiveness of a fundamental tool for art conservators in Europe and globally.  During the first year, in an interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists and conservators, the technical aspects of the IMAT will be researched and developed to achieve optimal designs and configurations of the CNT heaters leading to the first IMAT prototypes.  In the second year of the project, field testing partners will submit the prototype designs to rigorous lab use in order to collect analytical and empirical data which will allow further necessary improvements to be incorporated in the design. Year three of the project will give way to the dissemination phase to make the new technology known and accessible to conservators through publications, lectures and training in diverse cultural and geographical milieus.


Expected Results: As a finality, the IMAT project will create a series of   innovative and highly accurate mild heating devices, unique in the field, utilizing new materials and new technology based on nanomaterials, to be made available to conservators and scholars in multiple formats: through the presentation of research at conferences, the publication in peer-reviewed journals, the filing of papers on Open Access sites, as well as through a dedicated website (, workshops and symposia. The project will also involve the manufacture of market-ready IMAT devices which will advance the treatment methodology and will target a very broad audience in the field, essentially all conservators using thermal treatments in one form or another. To implement the use of the new IMAT technology into conservation practice without delay, it will be supported with the new conservation treatment methodology, which will be developed during the project, supported with case studies and published in the final book of the project. The expected  results of the  IMAT project, with its ambitious multi-faceted aspects of joint effort in interdisciplinary exchange, diffusion of knowledge, and end goal of improving the best practices of conservation of cultural heritage assets epitomize many broad goals addressed by conservators and conservation scientists today, emphasizing, in particular, the need to continuously address and revaluate the objectives and demands of the field, to integrate contemporary science into the discipline, and to affirm cultural heritage conservation and conservation research as a professional pursuit, fundamental for its role to society.