Lycurgus Cup Inspires Nanotechnology

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The ancient Romans were pretty advanced for their time -- so advanced that they may even have been pioneers of what we now call nanotechnology.

In fact, an ornately decorated Roman artifact, known as the Lycurgus cup, is inspiring researchers to explore practical applications of the ancient technology.

Created sometime in the Fourth Century, the goblet exhibits a color-changing property that makes its glass take on different hues, depending on the light source -- just watch the cup in the video below.

Scientists were long at a loss to explain the cup's color changes. Then in the 1990s they discovered tiny particles of silver and gold in the cup's glass. According to Smithsonian Magazine, "When hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the color depending on the observer’s position."

Now, a research team is attempting to build upon the unique technology and apply it in the medical field.

Gang Logan Liu, an University of Illinois assistant professor who has studied the Lycurgus cup for several years, described it as an "icon for inspiration."

"Were trying to build more sophisticated and higher-level structures from learning more from the Romans," Liu told The Huffington Post. "Creating the same shape as the Roman cup, we can see a similar process."

Since the team cannot experiment on the cup itself -- it is a precious artifact, after all -- they built replica color-changing cups on a much smaller scale by imprinting billions of microscopic wells on a plastic plate with the same nanoparticles.

Liu and his team are seeking to create a sensor that could quickly diagnose a disease based on a specific biomarker. While medical tests typically have to be processed in a lab, Liu believes the nanotechnology could conceivably be used as a portable test kit of sorts -- similar to a home pregnancy test.

"Usually you have to send a sample to a dedicated lab," Liu told HuffPost. "Now we could make something you can hold in your hand, so any doctor can use them."

The researchers unveiled plans for their sensor earlier this year. Liu hopes to have a portable device ready for hospital laboratory or home medicine applications within six years.


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