We all know what plastics are and what it is doing to the Earth. Plastic stays in the ecosystem for a long time, posing a hazard to wildlife and spreading pollutants, and plays a significant role in global warming. It is estimated that most plastics are made from chemicals used to manufacture climate-changing fossil fuels. Consequently, we are more likely to use these polluting fuels if we rely on plastics.
Burning plastics releases greenhouse gases and harmful particles into the atmosphere as well. Today, plastic pollution has made its way to the highest peaks and the deepest waters. Nobody knows how long it will take to vanish from Earth; it may take hundreds of years.
When we think about plastics, it is visualized in different types, shapes, colours, and sizes, like soda bottles. But from a chemist’s perspective, they’re all made of the same class of same class materials: polymers. Our lives are made much easier by plastic because it’s much cheaper than other materials, waterproof, heat resistant, and durable.
Plastic has so much intruded our lives that it’s almost impossible to avoid it even if one wants to. This overuse and non-decomposition of plastic have paved the way to cause harm to the environment. The issue is that plastics can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, and burning them produces hazardous chemicals that can harm plants and animals. Sadly, the plastic industry oversold its recyclability; it’s cheaper to make new than recycle old. So it appears that there is no way we can get rid of the plastic we have already dumped on the land and in the ocean.
Yet we might have a robust and sustainable substitute for plastic: Mycelium.
Solution to Plastic
These materials can be used to replace polluting, non-renewable plastic in various applications. Using natural materials ensures that the final product will biodegrade organically at the end of its life, rather than accumulating as pollution on our Earth indefinitely. Some of the materials that have the potential to replace plastic in some way or other can be eucalyptus pulp fibre, seaweed plastic, hemp, snow crab shell biopolymer, and many more. But we are discussing here exclusively the mycelium fungus and its potential.
Fungus is a possible solution to the problem of plastic. Mycelium technology might be the next big boom like the mycelium brick– a plastic-like replacement with many uses and new opportunities for products and even much wearable technology.
Let’s look at how mycelium technology can help us move toward a more renewable and greener future, one in which we don’t consume as much plastic. But before that, let’s first see what mycelium is – we are relying upon!
What is Mycelium Algae?
Mycelium is the underground, root-like body of fungi that produce mushrooms. The mycelium is the root, and the fungus is the flower if you compare it to a plant. Mushrooms are only a tiny portion of a much larger organism.
Fungi (mycelium) are vital in ecosystems because they recycle nutrients, making previously locked-away nutrients available to other species such as plants. They’re also incredibly hardy and capable of spreading quickly in the right conditions. Only a few spores are required to germinate.
The fungus grows and absorbs the nutrients available in its surrounding environment. Subsequently, the branches start coming out and continue to spread and form a vast mycelial network. The growing of the edible portion of mushroom depends on the completion of this network of mycelia.
Now, to tap its potential, the researchers are trying to grow this fungus in various pre-designed forms or blocks so that when it grows, it will produce predictable structures to be used in different sectors.
Why Mycelium over Plastic:
Mycelium foam is an incredible insulator that is also resilient, safe, sturdy, and biodegradable. It thus makes it ideal for a lot of applications such as packaging, clothes, building, and even food. Irrespective of the time it takes for synthetics or plastics to decompose, mycelium-based products naturally degrade after use.
As an added benefit, mycelium foam is inexpensive and cost-competitive with polystyrene foam or regular plastic.
How does it work?
Recently there has been some development in being able to grow mycelium in brick form.
We just let Mother Nature take care of it. The production process is kind of simple. It’s made up of various agricultural waste ranging from hemp to wood chips, and it’s held together by mycelium structures. This helps in the formation of the mycelium foam, which is the base material of the actual innovation.
The mixture is put in moulds for whatever you’re trying to make and placed in an environment with pre-adjusted CO2 levels, temperature, humidity, and airflow. In short, it is provided with everything it needs to grow. This is a fast process.
After a few hours, fibres can be seen, and after a day or two, a noticeable layer can be observed. In most cases, the mould is filled with mycelium foam within a week.
One question you may be asking yourself about this stuff is if the fungus is still alive and can keep growing within the products? Nobody would want such shoes, which grow over time. But the parents might be very happy as it would save them a lot of money if shoes grew as fast as their kids grow.
But the answer to this is No! For most market-oriented products, mycelium is heated long before it reaches the customer to kill or suppress it, thereby maintaining the product’s planned form and preventing the growing mushrooms and spouting of spores.
Mycelium technology has generated a slew of businesses in a variety of industries all around the world.
Ecovative was the first to introduce mycelium technology in 2006. Most mycelium composites and materials are created under their licence, which covers more than 40 patents in 31 countries. Ecovative has produced some product lines in this regard. They use their MycoFlex technology to manufacture everything from lightweight insulating lofts for gloves to the base of the high-performance footwear. The products are designed such that they are warm, insulating, breathable, and durable.
Uses of Mycelium
The most of plastic we use in our daily life is found in the packaging thing. Thus if we can only find an alternative to that, it would be a great help to the Earth and the environment altogether. Thus, mycelium is sure to help here.
Mushroom packaging, which is mostly formed of fungal roots (mycelia) and farm leftovers, is a 100 per cent biodegradable and renewable material with huge potential to replace plastic packaging items like Styrofoam. It may be made to fit and encapsulate a wide range of products. It outperforms polystyrene foam and polyurethane goods in terms of thermal insulation, water resistance, and strength.
It is a gold-certified cradle to cradle product, according to Sustainability Guide, because agricultural waste is used as raw material in mushroom packaging, which is then broken down into the soil and used to create new agricultural goods. It is also home compostable and grows sustainably because it does not require light, water, or chemical additions.
Other things that mycelium foam can be utilised include footwear, leather replacements, and lampshades.
In packaging materials, they’ve created a high-performing, cost-competitive solution that provides thermal insulation, water resistance, and decomposition in the soil within 45 days. It probably will work as an alternative to polystyrene in the coming times. The renowned company IKEA recently announced that they’re on the verge of replacing the traditional styrofoam packaging with MycoCompositee for all of its products.
2. As Food:
Ecovative has also been revolving around the idea to create whole cut plant-based meats. On top of that, these meats are supposed to be virtually completely unprocessed.
The researchers, however, may have to apologize to the vegetarians out there cause this might be a little gross. The reason is that it works so well as a slice of fake meat. Those mycelium fibres grow together in a tissue that resembles fibre similar to the texture of muscle tissues in animals.
So we’ve had packaging and food, but what about clothing? Bolt Threads by using its unique and innovative Mylo technology is trying to come up with a sustainable alternative to leather. Whereas, Adidas recently released the Stan Smith Mylo, which is the first sneaker of its kind to be manufactured from a mushroom-based substance.
The classic three stripes, heel tab overlay, and signature marking that their shoes are known for were all made with it.
More to it:
As if the trifecta of packaging, food, and clothing wasn’t enough, let’s step up to the quadfecta.
4. For Construction
Mycelium has been employed in the building industry as well. One example is the UK based startup Biohm. They are working on producing a mycelium insulation panel. If this gets successful, it will be the world’s first accredited mycelium insulation product.
Mycelium is healthier and safer and also outperforms petrochemical and plastic-based construction materials in terms of thermal and acoustic insulation. Tests show an acoustic absorption of at least 75% at 1000 Hz for mycelium panels, which is the typical frequency of road traffic noise.
Furthermore, because mycelium is not formed of synthetic, resin-based components, it does not produce hazardous, poisonous smoke during a fire. However, employing mushrooms as a weight-bearing construction material will still necessitate a significant amount of research and development. When compared to most building materials, it isn’t as robust and has a shorter useful lifespan.
Experiments in the past concerning construction
In 2014, The Living, an architectural firm, created the world’s first mushroom brick skyscraper. The bricks that were used to construct the structure were grown in three different moulds. It was made up of 10,000 bricks and stood 40 feet tall. Engineers accelerated the ageing of the bricks before constructing the tower, a method that replicated three years of weathering in three weeks.
The mycelium structure was also created for the Dutch Design Week. The Growing Pavillion was a makeshift event area made of mycelium panels supported by a wooden frame.
5. Wearable Technology
But we’re not going to stop at the quadfecta. Does that mean we’ve reached the quints? So perhaps the quint for mycelium would be wearable technology, rather than clothing.
In a recent study dubbed ”Reactive fungal wearable,” mycelium was used unusually. Fungi were investigated as a possible candidate for bio wearables by the researchers. Mushroom mycelium could be used to replace processors in electronic gadgets like Fitbits.
The researchers tested the electrical reaction of a hemp fabric that had been taken by oyster fungi. They connected it to computer sensors and used attractants and repellents to stimulate it. The mycelium of the oyster mushroom was able to perceive a variety of external stimuli, including temperature, moisture, light, some environmental chemicals, and even electrical signals, in a way that mimics the operation of sensors and processors.
You can see the possibilities with that quint of applications.
Future Market of Mycelium
The mycelium market will be driven by a combination of cost-effectiveness, customer response, and government objectives to limit the use of plastics. Maine’s state government, for example, has prohibited polystyrene food containers, and the legislation appears to be spreading to Colorado, Vermont, New Jersey, and Oregon as well. This action could pave the way for a nationwide push to ban styrofoam, a material that is nearly impossible to recycle.
The restriction is expected to compel restaurants and supermarkets to seek creative alternatives, allowing mushroom packing to flourish.
While some restaurants and grocery store operators may be hesitant to utilise mushroom packaging due to the somewhat higher prices, economies of scale and government backing could lead to more opportunities and lower costs.
Mycelium-based goods have a lot of potential to grow out and become a popular packaging material soon. Time will tell if additional applications of mycelium, such as clothes, food, and construction materials, can break into the mainstream.