aspen prize

The Aspen Institute Italia 2024 Prize was awarded to a cutting-edge multidisciplinary research project combining physics, biology, computer science and engineering: ‘Supersimulations of hydrodynamic flows reveal the adaptation of the skeletal structure of deep-sea sponges‘. The winning project, conducted with the support of Cineca’s Marconi100 supercomputer, brings to light the extraordinary adaptive capabilities of deep-sea sponges, opening up new perspectives in the field of engineering design.

The research, which was also published in the journal Nature, focuses on the interactions between the structure of sponges and the surrounding fluid, and paves the way for significant developments in the design of low-strength structures, suitable for dealing with air or water pressures, both for ships and aeroplane fuselages, up to skyscrapers.

One of the species analysed is Euplectella Aspergillum, which lives in the depths of the Pacific Ocean and around the Antarctic Continent. Also known as Venus Basket, this sponge is characterised by special structural properties: its silicon fibre skeleton gives this marine creature extraordinary mechanical strength, despite its apparently fragile structure.

The scientists investigated the adaptations of the Venus Basket to the currents of the abyss by means of advanced fluid-dynamic simulations conducted on the Marconi 100 supercomputer, which enabled them to reach a computing speed of around 10 Petaflops and to produce data in four dimensions, three spatial plus one temporal.

Simulation with the Marconi100 supercomputer

The structure of Euplectella aspergillum, reproduced in Italy by Pierluigi Fanelli of theUniversity of Tuscia, is reminiscent of a delicate glass vase in the shape of a thin-walled cylindrical tube with a large central atrium composed of siliceous spicules. The spicules are composed of three perpendicular rays, giving them a six-pointed shape. The microscopic spicules ‘weave’ together a very dense mesh, which gives the sponge body a rigidity not found in other sponge species and allows them to survive at great depths in the ocean.

To understand how ‘Venus Basket’ sponges survive in their environment, the international research team used the ‘MARCONI100’ supercomputer at CINECA, Italy, which is capable of performing simulations based on billions of calculation points and producing data in four dimensions, three spatial plus one temporal. The researchers employed a special calculation code developed by Giorgio Amati from the HPC department of CINECA in Rome. The software enabled super-simulations based on the Lattice Boltzmann method, a class of computational fluid dynamics methods for complex systems that represents the fluid as a collection of particles and tracks the behaviour of each of them.

The ‘in silico’ experiments, i.e. conducted using sophisticated computer simulations, reproduced the hydrodynamic conditions of the seabed where the glass sponge lives through almost 100 billion fluid particles. The results compiled by Vesselin K. Krastev at theUniversity of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’ allowed the researchers to explore how the organisation of holes and ridges in the sponge improves its ability to reduce the forces applied by seawater and how its structure affects the dynamics of flow within the sponge’s body cavity, optimising both the selective filtration of nutrients and the meeting of gametes for sexual reproduction.

This work is an exemplary application of computational fluid dynamics, in general, and of the Lattice Boltzmann method, in particular: the accuracy and flexibility of the method, combined with access to one of the world’s best supercomputers, has enabled calculations to be performed at a level never before attempted in this field.

The Aspen Institute Italia Prize was awarded to this research for its scientific value and important contribution to transatlantic and interdisciplinary collaboration. Indeed, the collaboration between the University of Rome Tor Vergata, New York University and Harvard University, with the support of supercomputing, has brought to light not only engineering aspects, but also significant biological implications.

The Prize jury, chaired by the Hon. Prof. Giulio Tremonti, President of Aspen Institute Italia, recognised the innovative value of this research, which opens up new perspectives in the field of the relationships between fluid mechanics, biology of living organisms and ecology, with concrete implications for applications in design and structural engineering.

More information is available in the in-depth study on the Cineca website. and on the Aspen Institute Prize website