- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003


Scientists say they have identified an ocean sponge living in the darkness of the deep sea that grows thin glass fibers capable of transmitting light better than industrial fiber-optic cable used for telecommunication.

The natural glass fibers also are much more flexible than manufactured fiber optics that can crack if bent too far.

“You can actually tie a knot in these natural biological fibers and they will not break. It’s really quite amazing,” said Joanna Aizenberg, who led the research at Bell Laboratories.

The glassy sponge, nicknamed the “Venus flower basket,” grows the flexible fibers at cold temperatures using natural materials — a process materials scientists hope to duplicate to avoid the problems created by current fiber-optic manufacturing methods requiring high temperatures and producing relatively brittle cable.

The sponge is also able to add traces of sodium to the fibers, which increase their ability to conduct light, something that cannot be done to man-made fibers at the high temperatures needed for commercial manufacture, Miss Aizenberg said.

“One of the challenges of technology is doping the glass structure with additives that improve optical properties,” she said. “If we understand exactly how we can deposit sodium in glass fibers at low temperatures, as nature does, we can control all the properties.”

The sponge grows in deep water in the tropics. It is about a foot and a half high with an intricate silica-mesh skeleton that also serves as a home for shrimp. The glass fibers form a crown at its base that appears to help anchor the sponge to the ocean floor. The fibers are generally 2 to 7 inches long and each is about the thickness of a human hair.

The study, which appears today in the journal Nature, details one of the latest discoveries in the emerging field of biomimetics — the effort to understand how biological systems are engineered and apply those principles to technology.

“It’s such a wonderful example of how exquisite nature is as a designer and builder of complex systems,” said Geri Richmond, a chemist and materials scientist at the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.

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