Inkjet inks – Pigment or dye-based? A technical comparison

When looking into the details, you notice that the inks used for our inkjet printers are quite different from one brand to the next or from one reference to the next. Let’s check what the competing technologies are and the impact it may have on us photo users.

Dye-based ink

On one side, we find dye-based inks using a dye which is usually organic. This is somewhat similar to the ink used in a common fountain pen: in a solvant (often plain water, sometimes alcohol, exceptionally an oil) colored molecules are presented coming from an organic chemical compound.

This could be seen as quite similar to water-colour painting. Canon is mostly using this type of ink for its inkjet printers.

Pigment ink

Exactly at the opposite are the inks incorporating a pigment. It is no longer a colored chemical solution but a liquid holding some colored particles. These are most often mineral compounds selected for their very good stability; they are often protected by an additional thin resin coating.

Oil painting is using a very similar technique (using particles that may be much larger than those used for inkjet printers).

Epson introduced sets of pigment-base inks when they started promoting long-life prints on matte papers (one century or more).

Pros and cons

If you look at the fine structure of these inks, you recognize quite quickly that they should (and they have) significant characteristics.

Form the manufacturer point of view

Dye-based ink

This technology is very well mastered in the industry for years (they started long before inkjet printers appeared on the market).

Pigment ink

Pigment technology is difficult to master (taking into account the small size of the particles to create in large quantities). You have to manufacture nano-sized particles that will be coated in a thin resin layer.

The resin will be used to protect the pigment against external mechanical and chemical attacks, but it also helps in transporting easily the particle inside the ink (and through the nozzles) and fixing it onto the paper.
It is easily seen that these contrdictory constraints make this technology more difficult to master.

As the ink is actually suspended inside a holding liquid, this creates some problems for storage (to avoid sedimentation) and moving the ink.

When drying, this ink could easily plug the holes used to project the ink on the paper. This requires specific attention to ink management.

From the user point of view

Dye-based ink

This ink is generally cheap (even if the manufacturing cost is only one factor in determining the selling price of inkjet ink).

Dye is quite fragile. When exposed to light (and Ultra-Violet light), the colored molecule can easily be broken and loose its color. this leads to prints that loose their original colors and fade to white or change their colors in time.

Ozone and several other common pollutants also are able to break chemically down the color molecules. The result is the same as with light.

Drying time is directly linked to the drying time of the solvant on the paper (this can lead to premature closing of nozzles if the ink is set to dry quickly on paper). On the contrary, if the paper is not able to absorb quickly the ink and its solvant, there is a risk of ink flow or paper deformation. To favor a fast drying, it is better to use a microporous paper (despite its bad consequences on chemical degradation of the resulting print).

Pigment ink

This solution gives the best possible lifetime for your prints (specialy if the paper is designed to protect the ink as many matte papers selected for archival, but not microporous papers). It is thus no surprise that Epson printers for archival and long lifetime purposes are using such pigments (resulting in more than a century of conservation).

Degradation of pigments by gazeous pollutants and ozone is very limited. The presence of the resin coating limits it further.

Color density is usually better, or easier to reach than with dye-based inks.

However, pigments tends to promote a defect known as bronzing where, when brightly lit or lit under low incidence, the print will show unpleasant metal-like reflections

Manufacturing cost being higher, ink prices are quite high too for the user.

Advice

The first advice should be obvious: Obey the printer manufacturer requirements and advices. The ink-paper association is quite difficult to optimize and bargain-priced inks or papers generally lead to bad results. Compatiblity is very approximate here.

Generally, before more precise proof or tests, it is better to stay within the limits of working ink-paper pairs. Those normally expected to work better according to the underlying technologies are [colorant/dye + coated paper] and [pigment + nanoporous paper].

6 comments for “Inkjet inks – Pigment or dye-based? A technical comparison

  1. April 4, 2009 at 08:38

    I have an epson pro stylus 4000 printer and i have been advised to use only there ink ,is this a con?I purchased some bottled ink from a well known firm and tested it against epson by putting two drops one of each on paper and leaving in full sunlight for sevrel months,if anything epson was fading first!Whats your answer to this please?regards Bill

  2. April 4, 2009 at 18:55

    Your test is providing only a very partial view. However, there are very good reasons to be afraid of using third-party ink on your photo-quality printer.

    • Color balance is really a matter of ink color managed by the printer. If you use inks of (even slightly) different color, do not expect the printer driver to be able to produce the most realistic results.
    • Printer heads are very sensitive to physico-chemical characteristics of the ink (homogeneity, density, fluidity, etc.) and with the wrong ink you can expect clogged heads and or head inability to measure precisely the quantity of ink deposited (wonrg colors again).
    • Reducing ink prices may come not from reducing margins (always good for consumers like us) but from reducing costs (by cutting corners and using less than adequate materials or inadequate quality control).
    • Long-term behaviour is one obvious concern (as you rightly point to), but simply putting a drop of ink on paper is not representative of what happens with the tiniest quantities spread over paper.

    In many cases, low cost third-party products provide good (not best) quality and often bring a large variability on results: Once fairly good, once catastrophic. As some say: “Your mileage may vary”.

    For sure, Epson, Canon and other brands are playing their cards right here and they force as much fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) on you and me. But there are real reasons behind that.

  3. herdy bramanta
    May 4, 2009 at 05:18

    I want to know flowsheet inkjet inks manufacturing using pigmaent as raw materials.

  4. Vipul Mehta
    November 9, 2009 at 14:30

    I am interested to have knowhow to manufacture Inkjet inks in Paste form using Pigment in 0.3 Micron To 0.4 micron so let me know the process to manufacture the inkjet paste.

    Regards.
    Vipul Mehta

    s_gtc@hotmail.com

  5. November 9, 2009 at 20:09

    Vipul,

    You are asking a lot, and a lot more than what I know. I guess you should contact directly some of the industrial specialists.

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