Chances are that if you were heading into battle, you wouldn’t wish that you were covered in sponges. It turns out that the sea sponge, however, has a unique structure that allows it to be flexible while remaining relatively impervious to predators. Scientists have now simulated this structure, in a lab-created material that may someday find use in body armor.
Sponges’ “skeletons” – their internal structural elements – are made up of tiny interlinked needle-like structures known as spicules. These are hard, prickly, flexible and lightweight. As a result, they offer enough strength to provide structural support, while they bend to such an extent that they’re difficult to cut. A team of researchers from Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research set out to develop a material with those same qualities.
The nanoscale spicules they created incorporate a mixture of the mineral calcite, and a protein found in siliceous sponges known as silicatein-α. Each synthetic spicule is composed of a multitude of calcite “nanobricks” stacked together brick chimney-style, with a matrix of the stretchy protein holding them together.
When mechanical pressure is applied, the nanobricks remain hard and unyielding, but the connective protein allows the spicule as a whole to bend without breaking. In fact, the man-made spicules are reportedly about ten times as flexible as their natural counterparts. As a side benefit, they’re also able to transmit light waves – even when bent.
A paper on the sponge research was recently published in the journal Science. The process by which the spicules were created is outlined in the video below.
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