Studying ancient Grecian pottery isn't just about learning about the past anymore — although that in itself is pretty cool. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has recently awarded grants to three research groups to explore the chemistry of the ancient vases to find out why they've been able to survive for so long.
The goal is to find out what techniques were used and how they might be applied to modern ceramics — specifically the kind of ceramics critical for use in space missions.
As many as 100,000 vases have survived from ancient Greece to modernity. That's an incredible 2,500 years of staying power, so the Greeks must have been on to something. The research is expected to focus on how they approached iron-spinel chemistry, which is what gives ceramics the ability to withstand heat while still remaining chemically unchanged.
The NSF grant of half a million dollars will look at research involving X-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES). That's a fancy way of saying they will be using various X-ray techniques to understand what has happened with the iron oxidation in the pottery. It's a better understanding of the molecular structure of the iron molecules that will help inform the creation of tougher ceramics in the future.
Tougher ceramics are critical to the development of space vehicles and componentry, and most know that ceramic tiles have been used on the underside of a generation of Space Shuttles to help combat against the heat of re-entry. It was damage to the ceramic tile that caused the loss of the Columbia in 2003, so the need to better understand how to improve the tiles — such as limiting expansion and contraction — is key for future endeavors.
The past and the future seem to be linked somehow — at least as it relates to this pottery. The very iron molecules that modern scientists are looking to study are what caused the unique red and black colors that attracted the ancient Greeks to use it in making their unique designs.
That's a lot of years of form and function, from the past, to infinity and beyond!