It sounds like a futuristic sci fi idea: a non-toxic, earth friendly packing material that grows itself and, after it's used, makes a great garden compost. But this isn't fiction - it's mushrooms.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), two former Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute undergraduates, Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, came up with the idea to make a composite of mushroom roots that could be used as a packing foam substitute. Their product, which they dubbed Mycobond, is now hitting the market and, according to a NSF press statement, has several advantages for the environment.
First of all, the manufacture of Mycobond requires just 1/8 the energy and 1/10 the carbon dioxide of traditional foam packing material. In fact, most of the manufacturing process is virtually energy-free with the mycelia (the vegetative parts of the mushrooms which consist of masses of branching, thread-like hyphae) simply growing by digesting agricultural starter material (mostly cotton seed or wood fiber) in a dark, room temperature environment.
The growth take place within a molded plastic structure which can be customized for whatever needs to be packed with the mushroom material. That means no energy at all is required for shaping the products. "We don't manufacture materials, we grow them," McIntyre explained in a statement to the media. "We're converting agricultural byproducts into a higher-value product."
The material has another economic benefit as well, he added, because the cost of mushroom packing material isn't tied to the price fluctuations of synthetic materials that are derived from sources like petroleum. "All of our raw materials are inherently renewable and they are literally waste streams," McIntyre said. "It's an open system based on biological materials."
Once fully formed, each Mycobond piece is heat-treated to stop the growth process and then delivered to the customer. Bayer and McIntyre, whose business is called Ecovative, are working to turn the entire process into a packaged kit that will eventually allow shipping facilities, and even homeowners, to grow their own Mycobond materials.
With support from NSF, McIntyre and Bayer are also developing an even less energy-intensive method to sterilize the agricultural waste starter material they use. Sterilization is a necessary step for enabling the mycelia to grow because it kills any spores that would compete with the growing-for-packing-material mushrooms. McIntyre and Bayer have been using a steam-heat sterilization process but they've now come up with a treatment made from cinnamon-bark oil, thyme oil, oregano oil and lemongrass oil that will allow the Mycobond mushroom product to grow in the open air, instead of their current clean-room environment.
"The biological disinfection process simply emulates nature in that it uses compounds that plants have evolved over centuries to inhibit microbial growth," McIntyre said in a press statement. "The unintended result is that our production floor smells like a pizza shop."
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