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The Romans were even better engineers than we thought, using nanotechnology to make a goblet change colour from different angles and with different liquids

Lycurgus-cupWe knew the Romans were good engineers.  They built roads, bridges, aqueducts and walls.  Many of their military victories owed at least as much to engineering as to their prowess in arms.  New research shows they were even better than they thought.  People wondered how they’d managed to get the Lycurgus cup to look green from the front but blood red when viewed from behind.  The 1600 year-old cup depicts King Lycurgus of Thrace enmeshed in vines.  In 1990 scientists looked at a few broken fragments and found the glass was impregnated with silver and gold flecks, ground down to be 50 nanometers, or a thousandth of the size of a grain of salt.  It had been done deliberately.

“The ancient nanotech works something like this: When hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the color depending on the observer’s position.”

The researchers couldn’t experiment with the priceless cup itself, so they created tiny wells and sprayed nanoparticles of gold and silver onto them.  When liquids were put on them, they changed colour with the liquid – light green for water, red for oil, etc.  It seems the cup had been designed to show different colours depending on what was put into it.  Now the technology as been rediscovered it has exciting potential for medical research, raising the prospect of easy-to-perform tests that can detect pathogens in urine or saliva.


One Response

  1. This is an unusual way of refracting light. I have two lighting shades which I bought about ten years ago. They are constructed from a thin semi-flexible plastic material which is ‘ crinkly ‘. The material seems to be flash coated with a micro gold film. This is transparent and when lit with a low energy lamp gives multiple colours of metallic red, green and blue with an overall gold reflection. Friends and visitors are fascinated when the lights are switched on but I have not seen these on sale anywhere since I bought them. The flash coating process sounds like a similar one to that used by the Romans and it took one thousand six hundred years for us to rediscover it.

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