September 1, 2005 Sponges are the homes of colonies of tiny marine animals, and wonders of miniaturized engineering. They employ complex structural arrangements, the strongest glasses known to man, and even microscopic fiber optics that glow in the dark. Scientists are trying to figure how to reproduce some of their tricks, such as producing glass at low temperatures.
MURRAY HILL, N.J.--It's an unlikely discovery at the bottom of the sea that could strengthen our future; unbreakable glass.
Glass is fragile, but something found in the sea may change that. It has survived here for billions of years and is made of glass. Joanna Aizenberg, physical and material chemist at Bell Labs and Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, N.J., says, "It uses every structural feature we know in mechanical engineering, but at a scale that is 1,000, 10,000-times smaller."
In fact, it's one of the strongest glasses known to man. Aizenberg is studying how the sponge is formed and has discovered individual needle-like glass beams make up the basic structure. "Each of the strands is about the thickness of a human hair. Actually half of a human hair," she says.
Today, architects use fiber-reinforced cements, bundled beams, and diagonal beams to reinforce building columns. You can see it in the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Swiss Re Tower in London. Engineers hope to use what they've learned about the formation of the sponge's glass beams to help create better, stronger and cheaper materials for the future.
Elsa Reichmanis, director of Polymer and Organic Materials Research at the Bell Labs and Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, N.J. says, "As scientific research is evolving, we are now starting to explore and understand more of what nature does every day very easily."
The sponge cannot only show scientists how to produce glass at low temperatures, but the sponge also has optical fibers that glow in the dark.
BACKGROUND: Bell Labs researchers have discovered that a sea organism known as the glass sponge uses basic principles much like those found in mechanical engineering textbooks to reinforce its seemingly delicate and brittle structure. Its architecture calls to mind the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Studying such creatures could lead to new concepts in materials science and engineering design.
ABOUT THE GLASS SPONGE: Unlike the squishy, manmade sponges we see all the time in our daily lives, sponges are an ancient group of animals whose presence in the fossil record goes back more than half a billion years. Sponges may be groups of collaborating individual cells rather than one unified animal, since they don't form tissues. This means they don't have hearts, lungs or other organs. But they are capable of creating some of the most complex and diverse systems of skeletons known in nature.
The glass sponge is made entirely of glass, spun into delicate fibers. It can even emit light despite the darkness of deep sea levels, thanks to the presence of fluorescent bacteria embedded in its structure. The intricate glass cages of the sponge have at least seven levels of structural organization. The creatures use fiber-reinforced cements, beams of bundled fibers, and diagonal reinforcement beams running at 45-degree angles to achieve maximum strength and stability. The glass beams, which resemble small needles, are made of alternating layers of glass and glue; the glue between each glass layer prevents cracks from spreading from one layer to the next. Wherever the beams intersect, more glue is added to toughen the connection.
WHAT WE COULD LEARN: By studying the glass sponge, scientists could learn how to create a strong material out of something that seems to be frail. It may also hold the secret to making glass at room temperature, instead of the extremely high temperatures required to do so today. Researchers believe that the individual glass fibers in the sponge are formed by a protein at the center of each glass filament.
The American Society of Civil Engineers contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.