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Published on January 5th, 2012 | by Susan Kraemer


In a Manufacturing First, Innovative Material is Grown by Fungi

January 5th, 2012 by  


Normally manufacturers must rush their products off the assembly line, but EcovativeDesign has a novel approach. They just wait, up to week, and let mycelium do the manufacturing work to construct everything from insulation to packaging materials.

In a completely new way to make stuff, they let mycelium – a fungal network of threadlike cells – grow the material by combining itself with agricultural byproducts like plant stalks and seed husks. Mycelium is like the “roots” of mushrooms. In 5 – 7 days, in the dark, with no water, and no petrochemical inputs, the mycelium digests the agricultural byproducts.

Once the mycelium has bound the agricultural waste, then a quick  heat-drying treatment at the end halts the organic growth, resulting in a stable, strong, waterproof structural material.

Over the last ten thousand years, we humans have put many plants and animals to work for our ends, but it is likely that this marks the first manufacturing work by the kingdom of fungi.

Because the mycelium acts like a natural, self assembling glue, it can replace the toxic adhesives like formaldehyde that hold particle board together, and any of the uses for styrofoam and other packaging materials could be replaced by this fungi-grown stuff.

Here’s the work flow:

  1. Truckloads of agricultural byproducts arrive from regional farms.
  2. Several types of farm waste are stored in large hoppers and then mixed in different ratios to meet specified material properties.
  3. A patented continuous steam pasteurization system cleans the crop wastes of any mold or bacterial contamination that may have come from the field.
  4. The pasteurized substrate is inoculated with mycelium, and molded into a form.
  5. These forms are loaded into pallet racks, and growth occurs indoors for about a week.
  6. Lastly, the parts are popped out and dried in order to deactivate the growth.
  7. Finished parts are shipped to customers.

Although just starting up, this is not some small scale cottage industry either. Because of the promise of this novel approach, 3M is working to help the founders scale up their process. Their materials are protecting NOAA’s scientific buoys during deployment.

Their in-house testing facilities can give results for

  • Compressive strength and elastic modulus
  • Tensile strength and elastic modulus
  • Flexural strength and elastic modulus
  • Face shear
  • Planer shear
  • Thermal conductivity
  • Thermal diffusivity
  • Specific heat
  • Environmental aging from -50ºC to 190ºC, relative humidity from 0-95%
  • Water sorption
  • Drop testing: cushioning and resilience
  • Screw hold test
  • Fatigue testing
  • Creep testing

They can custom design and produce shapes needed to order. It can grow itself into whatever shape is desired, in a mould. First you can get a sample of this strange new material to see if it will work for your needs. Almost any business that ships things could use such a  sustainable alternative to the usual toxic resource-depleting packaging materials. 

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About the Author

writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today and Renewable Energy World.  She has also been published at Wind Energy Update, Solar Plaza, Earthtechling PV-Insider , and GreenProphet, Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American. As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator's perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times.    Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.

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