The colorful secret of a 1,600-year-old Roman chalice at the British
Museum is the key to a super­sensitive new technology that might help
diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints.

The glass chalice, known as the Lycurgus Cup because it bears a
scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, appears jade green when lit
from the front but blood-red when lit from behind—a property that
puzzled scientists for decades after the museum acquired the cup in the
1950s. The mystery wasn’t solved until 1990, when researchers in England
scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the
Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the
glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as
small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of
a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals
suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says
one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University
College London.

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. Gang Logan Liu, an
engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has
long focused on using nanotechnology to diagnose disease, and his
colleagues realized that this effect offered untapped potential. “The
Romans knew how to make and use nanoparticles for beautiful art,” Liu
says. “We wanted to see if this could have scientific applications.”



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