Ancient Roman glass inspires modern science

Nov 20, 2013

(Phys.org) —A 1700-year-old Roman glass cup is inspiring University of Adelaide researchers in their search for new ways to exploit nanoparticles and their interactions with light.

Researchers in the University's Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) are investigating how to best embed in glass ‒ instilling the glass with the properties of the nanoparticles it contains.

"Nanoparticles and nanocrystals are the focus of research around the world because of their unique properties that have the potential to bring great advances in a wide range of medical, optical and electronic fields," says Associate Professor Heike Ebendorff-Heidepriem, Senior Research Fellow in the University's School of Chemistry and Physics. "A process for successfully incorporating nanoparticles into glass, will open the way for applications like ultra low-energy light sources, more efficient solar cells or advanced sensors that can see inside the living human brain."

"We will be able to more readily harness these nanoscale properties in practical devices. This gives us a tangible material with nanoparticle properties that we can shape into useful forms for real-world applications. And the are actually enhanced by embedding in glass."

The Lycurgus Cup, a 4th century cup held by the British Museum in London, is made of glass which changes colour from red to green depending on whether light is shining through the Cup or reflected off it. It gets this property from gold and embedded in the glass.

"The Lycurgus Cup is a beautiful artefact which, by accident, makes use of the exciting of nanoparticles for decorative effect," says Associate Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem. "We want to use the same principles to be able to use nanoparticles for all sorts of exciting advanced technologies."

Nanoparticles need to be held in some kind of solution. "Glass is a frozen liquid," says Associate Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem. "By embedding the nanoparticles in the glass, they are fixed in a matrix which we can exploit."

Associate Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem is leading a three-year Australian Research Council Discovery Project to investigate how best to embed nanoparticles; looking at the solubility of different types of nanoparticles in glass and how this changes with temperature and glass type, and how the nanoparticles are controlled and modified.

The work builds on a past project with collaborators who are now at RMIT University.

"It was pure serendipity. We found by chance the right glass and the right conditions to embed nano-diamond into , creating a single photon source in a fibre form," says Associate Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem. "Now we need to find the right conditions for other nanoparticles and other glasses."

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User comments : 6

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RealScience
5 / 5 (2) Nov 20, 2013
"The Lycurgus Cup is a beautiful artefact which, by accident, makes use of the exciting properties of nanoparticles for decorative effect"


It may well have been art rather than science, but it is modernist arrogance for the author to assume that it was an accident. Seeing how even the effect is in the cup, it is far more likely to be deliberate than to be an accident.
ThomasQuinn
3 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2013
"The Lycurgus Cup is a beautiful artefact which, by accident, makes use of the exciting properties of nanoparticles for decorative effect"


It may well have been art rather than science, but it is modernist arrogance for the author to assume that it was an accident. Seeing how even the effect is in the cup, it is far more likely to be deliberate than to be an accident.


That was exactly what I thought. We like to assume that we're much more advanced than ancient peoples, and to dismiss anything that contradicts that notion as "accidental". However, considering how advanced the Romans were in the chemical composition of, for instance, concrete, I am definitely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here. They might not have understood exactly HOW this principle worked, but I can certainly imagine the effect was intentional.
rockwolf1000
not rated yet Nov 21, 2013

That was exactly what I thought. We like to assume that we're much more advanced than ancient peoples, and to dismiss anything that contradicts that notion as "accidental". However, considering how advanced the Romans were in the chemical composition of, for instance, concrete, I am definitely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here. They might not have understood exactly HOW this principle worked, but I can certainly imagine the effect was intentional.


Possibly, but as with many other technological advances, they probably did happen quite by accident originally such as cheese, beer and soap. Once the cause and effect had been established only then could these items be made intentionally. I find it highly improbable that the Romans would know that adding these adulterants would have that outcome the first time around.
RealScience
not rated yet Nov 21, 2013
@rockwolf - exactly - an art rather than a science. An effect is discovered and a way to reproduce it is found, but the effect is not predicted in advance and the underlying process that causes the effect is not known.

However the discovery may have been deliberate trial-and-error ("let's see what happens if we add a pinch of this to the mixture before melting it. Hmm, nothing. How about a pinch of that? - Oh, that's cool! Let's try two pinches.") rather than a pure accident.

Of course the original discovery could also have been a pure accident ("Aaack, my gold earring just fell into the molten glass. Wow, that's a cool effect!"), but with precious metals like gold and silver involved, my guess is experimentation.
alanborky
5 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2013
The 10 000 year old exquisitely intricately carved Asıklı Höyük obsidian bracelet.
Hundreds of thousands of years old 21st century standard magnifying lenses found all over the world.
The Antikythera Mechanism.
The Lycurgus Cup.
Medieval Arabian nanotechnology based Damascus Steel.

Boy them olde timey guys sure were lucky with their accidents an' so many too!

Virtually all if not all science proceeds by observation investigation utilisation. Newton's apple. Einstein's round the universe ride on a beam of light.

How's that different from what those olde timey guys achieved?
RealScience
not rated yet Nov 24, 2013
@alanborky - thanks for the link to the obsidian bracelet, I had missed that article.

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