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SEAS Researchers Draw on Marine Sponges for Inspiration in Designing Sturdier Buildings

New research out of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences found inspiration in the lattice-like structure of sea sponges.
New research out of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences found inspiration in the lattice-like structure of sea sponges. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By Meera S. Nair, Crimson Staff Writer

Researchers at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences found inspiration in the architecture of deep-sea marine sponges’ skeletal systems when seeking to build sturdier load-bearing structures with higher material efficiency.

The findings — which were published in Nature Materials on Monday — revealed that the lattice-like structures found in sponges increase overall structural strength by more than 20 percent compared to other lattice geometries composed of the same amount of material.

Matheus C. Fernandes, a graduate student and first author on the paper, wrote in an email that the motivation behind the research was to look to Euplectella aspergillum, a sponge commonly known as the Venus’ flower basket, as a model for designing taller skyscrapers or longer bridges.

“Nature has been solving engineering problems for much longer than we have, so they must be doing something right,” Fernandes wrote. “Many marine sponges build robust and highly regular skeletal systems out of intrinsically brittle materials like glass, so they seemed like great model systems to study for design inspiration.”

Materials Science and Chemistry and Chemical Biology professor Joanna Aizenberg, who has studied sea sponges for about 20 years, wrote in an email that the “unique hierarchical architecture” of the sponges can teach humans “how to design strong, robust structures.”

Fernandes said a fundamental challenge in building architectural structures lies in achieving a high strength-to-weight ratio, since heavier structures can be sensitive to buckling under their own weight.

“For skyscrapers, the taller you build, the heavier they become,” Fernandes wrote. “So if you have redundant material adding up through its height, the bottom of the building eventually becomes limited on how much weight it can support, putting a cap on how tall you can build.”

Fernandes added that modern infrastructure typically uses a lattice resembling “a grid covered with crosses.” When the researchers analyzed Euplectella aspergillum, they discovered that the sponge utilized “a double set of diagonals going through every other cell of a square lattice, creating a design that alternates with crosses and octagonal openings, resembling a checkerboard-like pattern.”

“Because of its nonintuitive design, this specific geometry had not been previously considered by structural engineers, highlighting the benefits of this highly interdisciplinary research which combines biology, civil engineering, and mathematical modeling,” Fernandes wrote. “The cool thing about what we’ve learned from this study is that the sponge’s engineering secret is not related to its construction material or chemistry, but rather, it’s simply the geometry.”

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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