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Structural Lessons from the Sponge

Thursday, January 12, 2017

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Those who design structures, from buildings to bridges, may be on the verge of learning some important lessons from none other than the orange puffball sea sponge.

That’s right; engineers at Brown University say these unique sea sponges possess odd-shaped structural rods that help keep them from buckling at the bottom of the ocean due to underwater waves and tidal forces.

Kesari Lab / Brown University

The scientists show that the unique shape of the spicules of a orange puffball sponge are “optimal for resistance to buckling.”

The rods’ buckling resistance could one day influence building column design, bicycle spokes, and even arterial stents, according to an announcement on the research.

The team’s findings were recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Shape is Key

Orange puffball sponges are native to the Mediterranean Sea, Brown reports. Their rods, called strongyloxea spicules, measure about 2 millimeters long and are thinner than a human hair. Hundreds of them are bundled together, forming stiff, rib-like structures inside the orange puffball's spongy body, the researchers explain. The rods help keep the sponges’ porous bodies stiff enough to avoid deformation.

“It was the odd and remarkably consistent shape of each spicule that caught the eye of Brown University engineers Haneesh Kesari and Michael Monn,” the university reports. “Each one is symmetrically tapered along its length—going gradually from fatter in the middle to thinner at the ends.”

The team used structural mechanics models and an mathematics journal article published more than 150 years ago to show that the shape of the spicules was “optimal for resistance to buckling,” which is described as the primary mode of failure for slender structures.

‘Useful in Engineering’

"There's no engineering analog for this shape—we don't see any columns or other slender structures that are tapered in this way,” said Kesari, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown. “So in this case, nature has shown us something quite new that we think could be useful in engineering.”

The engineers report that the shape is 33 percent better than the cylinder in terms of buckling resistance.

Kesari and Monn hope that their discovery might help inspire improvements in structural design.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Building design; Building science; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Engineers; Latin America; North America; Program/Project Management; Research; Research and development; Safety

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