The magic of mushrooms for sustainability
Image credit: Ecovative Design
Several companies that aspire to make the world a more sustainable place have shown that mushrooms are more than just fungi and food.
The 2019 documentary ‘Fantastic Fungi’ revealed the pivotal role mycelium networks play in the natural world and how the entire ecosystem on Earth is built on collaboration and support. It highlighted how we have to learn to adopt that ethos rapidly to make human life on this planet more sustainable. In the world of biomimicry, the magic of mushrooms is delivering a wealth of innovations that do just that.
Ecovative, a New York-based biomaterials company, has developed a whole range of biomaterials using mycelium. One is a replacement for polystyrene foam packaging materials that doesn’t use petroleum, is completely biodegradable, doesn’t release hazardous vapours and can actually help dispose of organic waste, according to its creators. Their product, MycoComposite, is made from compost mixed with mycelium fungus. As it grows, the mycelium consumes the compost, replacing it with a stable, cushioning mycelium. The finished product can be used for almost anything that polystyrene foam is used for, including packing, insulation or as a replacement for foam buoys and rafts.
Ecovative Design founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre came up with the idea in a class called Inventor’s Studio at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 2000s. They were challenged to look at a regular everyday object and use it in a way no one has thought of before. At the time, the pollution problems that plastic causes were becoming very apparent so they decided to try and address this with their invention.
Bayer grew up on a farm where he had noticed the sticky and binding nature of mycelium growing in wood-chip piles. After experimenting with mycelium, Bayer and McIntyre first produced MycoComposite that is now used in their Mushroom Packaging range, which they say outperforms polystyrene foam’s performance in both strength and density. A few years later they launched MycoFlex, which is used to create high-performance foam alternatives and animal-free ‘leather’, both of which help to address pollution and plastics problems in the fashion and beauty industries. They add that both MycoFlex and MycoComposite are home compostable and return to the earth in a matter of weeks.
Andy Bass, Ecovative’s chief marketing officer, said the company now hopes to extend the reach of the products they’ve developed. “We are never at a loss for potential ideas on new materials, but at this time our focus is to see our current materials through to global production and scale to create lasting change and solutions for the industries where we have partners and can make a positive change for the environment.”
NexLoop, a biomimetic design company specialising in passive water capture for food sustainability, has incorporated the way mycelium deliver water to plant roots into its AquaWeb system, which captures atmospheric water in the built environment. Inspired by the growing demand for real, local food alongside the rapid growth in urbanisation, NexLoop realised that the resources necessary to achieve this paradigm shift must also be locally attuned.
“Our biomimicry design process for the AquaWeb modular water capture system began with examining the integral functions necessary to integrate in-situ atmospheric water sources into the food system,” Jacob Russo, co-founder, architect and biodesigner of NexLoop, explains. “Our vision of an integrated, nature-inspired food-water-energy nexus relies heavily on our ability to design a locally attuned and responsive food system and build multifunctional products to make agriculture, especially in urban environments, more resilient, affordable, and secure. We must address some of the underlying resource inputs and flows that underpin food production efforts.”
NexLoop believes that this has to start with water, and that implementing biomimetic strategies for water management is the best approach because nature has been managing water for billions of years. The team also looked to nature to inspire the AquaWeb’s water distribution strategy.
Russo says: “One of nature’s important unifying patterns is that it uses only the energy it needs and relies on freely available energy. Our goal is to embed this principle into our solution by capitalising on passive water distribution methods. We have accomplished this by mimicking the function of the rhizomorphs in mycorrhizal fungi.”
A mycorrhiza is the symbiotic relationship between the mycelium of a fungus and the roots of a plant. Mycelium is the vegetative part of fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, threadlike hyphae, often underground. Hyphae are the branching filaments that make up the mycelium of a fungus. A rhizomorph is a root-like aggregation of hyphae in mycorrhizal fungi that keeps it hydrated by transporting water between the root systems of neighbouring plants (Ask Nature 2020).
NexLoop’s water distribution network acts as an artificial root system to facilitate the passive movement of water. The team investigated the ectomycorrhizal fungus, Suillus bovinus, commonly known as the Jersey cow mushroom, the favoured species for water distribution as the channel it uses is the apoplastic route, which means within the porous cell walls. This helped NexLoop to refine the system even further to achieve a more comprehensive biomimetic strategy.
The current prototype, consisting of three hexagonal units (~4.8sqft each), integrates a biomimetic 3D woven polyester water capture textile, a standard 5-gallon water storage jug, and modified PVC tubes and joints, that create a modular, hexagonal frame structure that can also transport water through the system. This will be tested at various pilot locations to gather water collection data from different climates. The prototype costs about $260 (£190) to make. “As we develop the product, we plan to transition toward more benign materials and manufacturing processes for all components, such as bioplastics and certain 3D-printing technologies. We built some earlier prototypes with 3D-printed PLA bioplastic for the frame components,” Russo explains.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, NexLoop is exploring the idea of a small-scale, bioinspired, modular window planter for indoor residential food growing, which integrates passive water management techniques and benign materials to provide urban apartment dwellers with a variety of growing options that are easy to use. It is also conceptualising a new water capture product for balconies of residential apartments. Both of these new products will probably continue to use the same water capture textile as the AquaWeb and will focus more heavily on eco-friendly materials and processes for other product components.
Home furnishings are also getting the sustainability treatment. New York-based designer Danielle Trofe has developed an organic, sustainable and biodegradable lampshade range using materials from Ecovative. Her Mush-Lume Lighting Collection is bio-fabricated using mycelium and all of the lamps are grown, not manufactured, from mushrooms.
Through its partnership, Trofe was able to grow lamp shades using Ecovative’s extensive mushroom mycelium research, tested technology and patented growing process. “The growth process uses agricultural by-products, such as seed husks and corn stalks, and combines them with liquid mushroom mycelium,” a project member explains. “The mycelium then binds with these components and grows for several days in custom moulds. When the growth process is complete, the material is heated and dried, ending the growth cycle.”
Each lamp is handcrafted throughout the process of moulding, growing and drying. Its developer said the mushroom material can be left natural or can be hand-painted with non-toxic, all-natural milk paint. They added that at the end of its life, the mushroom material can be broken into smaller pieces, then added to a buyer’s garden compost to fully biodegrade.
A meat alternative
Another product that could go a long way in transforming the sustainability of the food industry is Atlast – a meat-alternative that is now being scaled up for US-wide distribution to CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies, the food service industry, and grocery retailers under Ecovative’s consumer-facing brand MyEats. Animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels, the biggest user of arable land planet-wide, and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Marketing director Andy Bass explains: “Consumers and brands are demanding shifts to cleaner production. Atlast delivers that along with a whole-food plant-based copy of traditional bacon. And bacon is just the beginning.”
Fungus Sapiens is a hybrid biomimicry lab and mushroom farm in France growing mushrooms for food, as well as to develop 100 per cent compostable biomaterials and enzymes with biotechnological potential for packaging, insulation or flotation devices, fabric, leather substitute and shoes, to replace petrochemical-based products.
Founder, CEO and R&D director Mariana Dominguez-Peñalva was looking for innovative solutions to the biggest socio-environmental issues such as hunger, pollution, biodiversity depletion and waste, among others. “I asked myself how nature would solve these major problems.”
After looking at several other potential sources, including up-cycling of agro-waste biomass, food waste, seaweeds, wood and forestry wastes, clay, natural fibres and textiles, Dominguez-Peñalva opted to invest her research and development in mycelium. This decision was reached because the natural material is 100 per cent compostable, water and fire-resistant, animal-free, and can be produced on a large scale, in a low-tech procedure that avoids cutting down trees and releasing GHG emissions, and is harmless to humans and the environment.
Initially, Dominguez-Peñalva was buying commercial mycelium from professional producers in Europe, France, Spain, Belgium or Austria, for edible or medicinal mushroom cultivation. “This allowed me to make my first experiments with mycelium avoiding risks of pollution,” she explains. “But then I started looking for wild strains in the forest near to my lab and my house to produce my own mother cultures and mycelium, testing different types of mushrooms.”
Fungus Sapiens is now refining its materials to enhance their performance without using any plasticiser, petrochemical additives or animal products.
These companies are demonstrating that mushrooms can be a magical solution to our biggest sustainability issues. Non-polluting, renewable and biodegradable and with applications in our biggest global industries.
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