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Aspen Award 2024 – The Winning Entry

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  • 29 March 2024

        “Extreme flow simulations reveal skeletal adaptations of deep-sea sponges” and open up unprecedented perspectives for engineering design. This multidisciplinary study – at the frontiers of physics, biology, computer science and engineering – has won the ninth Aspen Institute Italia Award for scientific research and collaboration between Italy and the United States. 

        The research project, which analyzes the interactions between the geometry of sponges and their surrounding fluid, will have significant implications for the engineering design of low-resistance structures, in adapting to air or water pressure. This will be useful, for example, for ships and airplane fuselages, and even for innovative skyscrapers. 

        Euplectella aspergillum – also known as Venus Flower Basket – is a sponge that lives deep in the Pacific Ocean and around Antarctica. It is a sponge with exceptional structural properties. Its skeleton is made of silica, an element that the sponge extracts from seawater, turning it into very thin glass fibers. Hence its nickname “glass sponge”. An amazing feature of this inherently fragile structure is that it exhibits great mechanical strength due to its special structure and optimal mass distribution. 

        Following these insights, the scientists involved in this research project carried out fluid dynamic simulations to discover adaptations of the Venus Basket to currents in the deep. They used the Marconi 100 super-computer at CINECA in Bologna, which reaches a computational speed of about 10 Petaflops and produces data in four dimensions: three spatial and one temporal. 

        This scientific endeavor won the 2024 Aspen Italia Award thanks to its indisputable value in the area of transatlantic and interdisciplinary collaboration. The study, in fact, features the University of Rome Tor Vergata and New York University. The latter contributed significantly to the understanding of the biological implications of super-simulation results. Harvard University also played a role, as two of the project’s authors were appointed there at the time of the super-simulations.

        Thanks to supercomputing resources, this study paves the way for new investigations on the relationships between fluid mechanics, biology of living organisms, and ecology, with spin-off applications in prospective design and structural engineering.

        The study was a collaboration between seven scientists:

        • Giacomo Falcucci, Department of Enterprise Engineering “Mario Lucertini”, University of Rome “Tor Vergata”, Rome, Italy; Department of Physics, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA; 
        • Maurizio Porfiri, Department of Biomedical Engineering; Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Center for Urban Science and Progress, Tandon School of Engineering, New York University, New York, NY, USA;
        • Sauro Succi, Center for the Life Nano- and Neuro Science, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Rome, Italy; Department of Physics, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA; Institute for Applied Computing (IAC), National Research Council, Rome, Italy;  
        • Giorgio Amati, High Performance Computing Department, CINECA Rome Section, Rome, Italy;
        • Pierluigi Fanelli, DEIM, School of Engineering, University of Tuscia, Viterbo, Italy; 
        • Vesselin K. Krastev, Department of Enterprise Engineering “Mario Lucertini”, University of Rome “Tor Vergata”, Rome, Italy; 
        • Giovanni Polverino, Centre for Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Western Australia, Perth.

        The Award 

        The Aspen Institute Italia Award for scientific research and collaboration between Italy and the United States was launched in December 2015 in keeping with the Institute’s commitment to encouraging and developing international leadership and transatlantic relations. Every year, the prize will be awarded to a research project studying applied or theoretical natural sciences, in which scientists and/or organizations from Italy and the US collaborate.

        The Award consolidates the Institute’s commitment towards initiatives and meetings on important topics in the fields of science and technological innovation, with particular reference to their relevance to Italy.

        The members of the Award committee are: 

        • Hon. Professor Giulio Tremonti, Chairman of the Award committee; Chairman, Aspen Institute Italia, Rome
        • Professor Cristina M. Alberini, Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York
        • Professor Alessandra Buonanno, Director, Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics – Albert Einstein Institute, Potsdam
        • Professor Domenico Giardini, Chair of Seismology and Geodynamics, ETH, Zurich
        • Professor Luciano Maiani, Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics, “La Sapienza” University, Rome
        • Professor Giovanni Rezza, Professor of Hygiene, Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele,  Milan  
        • Mr. Lucio Stanca, Vice Chairman, Aspen Institute Italia, Rome