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October 16, 2020

What can a sponge teach us about engineering?

The glassy skeletons of marine sponges are inspring the next generation of stronger and taller buildings, longer bridges, and lighter spacecraft. With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, engineers at Harvard have found a tiny sea sponge shows a pattern of strength and stability unmatched by humans.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Like a sponge.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: interior of car in motion) As you drive over some bridges, you can't help but notice the intricate latticework. Those diagonal beams that strengthen the bridge while adding as little weight as possible. In many types of construction, it's a design structure that's been used for centuries. Must be pretty good. (Sound effect: undersea sounds) Yeah, but not as good as -- nature.

New findings from NSF-funded researchers at Harvard show how the natural glassy lattice skeletal structure of a marine sponge has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than the designs we've been using to build everything from (Sound effect: city construction sounds) bridges and buildings (Sound effect: rocket launch sounds) to satellites and spacecraft.

The team replicated the exact detailed pattern of the sponges' skeleton and compared its structural strength with the different lattice patterns we use to construct things. The winner? Nature every time. The sponge's design withstood heavier loads without buckling, improving overall structural strength by at least 20 percent.

Hey, no fair nature's been working on this for half a billion years! Lessons from this optimized pattern could lead to longer bridges, stronger and taller buildings, and lighter spacecraft. Bio-inspired by an amazing deep-water sponge.

Would that be 'sponging off a sponge?'

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