Ocean STEMulation: Sea Sponge Fiber Optics
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in the ocean!
Sponges are one of the oldest ocean organisms, dating back 500 million years, but may have an ultra-modern capability. Most have an internal skeleton of miniscule fibrous or bony particles called spicules. Often made of glass, or silica, they come in a variety of forms.
Photo courtesy of Ryan Somma, Flickr, Creative Commons License
The deep-dwelling Euplectella (you-plek-tell-uh) sponge, also known as the Venus flower basket, is part of a class of “glass sponges” with especially elaborate silica skeletons. Scientists have discovered that Euplectella produces silica strands that are remarkably similar to optical fibers– except, they might be even better.
Photo courtesy of NEON, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License
Optical fibers are thin wires of pure silica that can transmit light. They are used to carry digital signals, including internet traffic, all over the world, and are more efficient at transferring information than older methods, like copper wire.
Photo courtesy of Randolph Femmer, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Euplectella uses its silica strands to attach to the seafloor. But they may have another use since scientists discovered that they seem less fragile and more efficient at transmitting light than man-made optical fibers. The sponge can also make the glass spicules at an ambient temperature, while we can only do it by heating the silica to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Scientists hope to learn how to create improved optical fibers by studying the spicules of Euplectella. Maybe one day we will watch YouTube via sponge tubes.