Learning Engineering from Nature

Nandita Singh Ph.D.
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“If there were no birds, could we even conceive flight?” asks Dr. Haneesh Kesari, Assistant Professor of Engineering at Brown University.

Euplectella, a small sea sponge, is found abundantly in deep water seas of Philippines and West Indies at the depth of 500-5000 meters. It is also found near Japan, in western parts of the Pacific Ocean and in the Indian ocean. These solitary animals of the deep seas have survived several extinction events.  Dr. Kesari considers them an engineering marvel because of their robust skeletons.

Dr. Haneesh Kesari, Brown University

Specifically, Dr. Kesari has drawn inspiration from the structures called siliceous spicules, a mass of long root tufts, that tether the animals to the ocean floor.

These glassy spicules have remarkable load-bearing biological structures (LBBSs). Dr. Kesari is attempting to understand the relationships between LBBS architectures and its mechanical properties to develop stronger, and lighter materials.  Structures that are thin are susceptible to buckling instability.  As a structure becomes thinner, buckling modes get triggered in the middle. However, these bio-inspired materials would be stronger with numerous applications, for example, in catheters, syringes, stents, and even stretchable electronics.

“Functionality correlates with beauty and mathematical regularity”, says Dr. Kesari. “This animal has been under evolutionary competition. It can make any shape it wants but it chose this structure.”

While the structural details of this sponge have been well characterized for some time, Dr. Kesari is studying it for the first time from an engineering perspective to determine the relationship between form and function. Watch his laboratory’s protocol for performing three-point bending tests on the skeletal elements of the marine sponge Euplectella aspergillum.


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