Brown University

Skip to Navigation

Sea Sponges Offer Clues on Structural Strength

January 6, 2017

Brown University engineers, including doctoral student Michael Monn, looked to nature to find a shape that could improve all kinds of slender structures, from building columns to bicycle spokes. Judging by their name alone, orange puffball sea sponges might seem unlikely paragons of structural strength. But maintaining their shape at the bottom of the churning ocean is critical to the creatures' survival, and new research shows that tiny structural rods in their bodies have evolved the optimal shape to avoid buckling under pressure.

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

Using structural mechanics models and a bit of digging in obscure mathematics journals, Monn and Kesari showed the peculiar shape of the spicules to be optimal for resistance to buckling, the primary mode of failure for slender structures. This natural shape could provide a blueprint for increasing the buckling resistance in all kinds of slender human-made structures, from building columns to bicycle spokes to arterial stents, the researchers say.

"This is one of the rare examples that we're aware of where a natural structure is not just well-suited for a given function, but actually approaches a theoretical optimum," said Kesari, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown. "There's no engineering analog for this shape — we don't see any columns or other slender structures that are tapered in this way. So in this case, nature has shown us something quite new that we think could be useful in engineering."

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Read more of Kevin Stacey's article about sea sponges.