Deepwater Sponges Inspire the Next Generation of Bridges and Skyscrapers

Have you ever walked through a covered bridge or built a metal storage shelf? If so, you've seen diagonal lattice architectures. 

This type of design uses several small, closely spaced diagonal beams to distribute applied loads evenly. This geometrical design was patented in the 1800s by civil engineer and architect Ithiel Town. His goal was to establish a method to create sturdy bridges of lighter and more cost-effective materials. 

With this design, some researchers are taking it to a whole new level with sponges.

A Whole New Use for Sponges

We all know sponges as generally soft and squishy. We think of sponges we use to wash dishes, and then we think of underwater sponges that look similar. However, researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) found a use for glassy skeletons of marine sponges to inspire future buildings, bridges, and spacecraft to be bigger and longer than before. 

These researchers recently published an article in Nature Materials about the diagonally-reinforced square lattice-like skeletal structure of Euplectella aspergillum (also known as Venus Flower Basket). This deepwater marine sponge has a more excellent strength-to-weight ratio than the lattice designs used for centuries to create buildings and bridges.

"We found that the sponge's diagonal reinforcement strategy achieves the highest buckling resistance for a given amount of material, which means that we can build stronger and more resilient structures by intelligently rearranging existing material within the structure," said Matheus Fernandes, a graduate student at SEAS and first author of the paper. 

James Weaver, a Senior Scientist at SEAS and one of the paper's corresponding authors, said the strength-to-weight structure of a structure is fundamental in many fields. The inspiration from biology could pave the way for designing lighter, more vital structures for many different uses. 

Euplectella aspergillum employs two sets of parallel diagonal skeletal struts that intersect and are fused to an underlying square grid to create a robust checkerboard-like pattern.

Sturdier Than Other Materials

Researchers replicated the lattice design of the 1800s, comparing the sponges' skeletal structure to that of existing lattice geometries. The result? The sponge design excelled, holding heavier loads without buckling. 

Researchers showed that the paired parallel crossed-diagonal structure increased overall structural strength by more than 20 percent, without requiring the additional material to achieve this effect.

Researchers continue to be surprised by sponge skeletons. Who knows what the future will bring with further studies? Only time will tell. 

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