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Sponge bobs up in fiber-optics research

Bell Labs researchers believe a deep-sea sponge holds clues to building better fiber-optic cables.

Bell Labs researchers believe a deep-sea sponge holds clues to building better fiber-optic cables.

A Bell Labs team headed by Joanna Aizenberg has already transmitted light through the ultra-thin, glasslike fibers that grow inside the sponge, known as a "Venus flower basket," a representative said.

Now the trick is to discover how the fibers grow at temperatures near freezing and are flexible enough to be tied into a knot, the representative said. Fiber-optic cables communications companies use are very brittle, because they are created using extremely high heat.

"This is purely science right now," a Bell Labs representative said. "The hope is engineers will look at the sponge and draw inspiration."

The research findings, to be published Thursday in the journal Nature, are part of a burgeoning scientific field that is mining nature for new techniques to create better technology.

Biomimetics, as the field is known, has already yielded such advances as new surgical techniques that use a glowing jellyfish protein and laundry soap that uses an enzyme from bacteria. Two years ago, Aizenberg discovered that a starfish, the brittlestar, is covered with lenses that act as a single eye. She has since built crystals based on the model provided by the starfish. The hope is that one day, such crystals could be used in communication networks and nanotechnology.