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Mushroom roots digest and bind agricultural waste to form polystyrene foam substitute

Ecovative Design : 21 November, 2012  (Special Report)
There is increasing and widespread interest in biodegradable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. One recent development in this area is a material called EcoCradle. Developed by Ecovative Design LLC, the material replaces synthetic, petroleum-based foams such as expanded polypropylene (EPP), expanded polyethylene (EPE), and expanded polystyrene (EPS). Containing fungus rather than petroleum, EcoCradle not so much manufactured as grown.

Debris continues to collect on the US Pacific coast from last year’s Japanese tsunami. Onlookers are surprised by the amount of foam insulation, materials which have accounted for over half (by volume) of the two tonnes of tsunami detritus collected along just two miles of Alaskan coastline.

A mushroom mixture grows inside plastic moulds. Material is then released from the moulds and dried on racks. EcoCradle begins as a combination of living fungi and agriculture waste. The fungi - called mycelium - is mixed with inedible and unusable agricultural by-products such as seed hulls or seed husks from staples like rice or oats.

Ecovative grows and forms the material by first cleaning the agricultural waste, mixing it with mycelium, and pouring it into plastic moulds. Over the course of five days and without light or water, the mycelium digests some of the waste particles and binds to the others. Every cubic inch of the mixture contains a matrix of eight miles of tiny mycelial fibres, which allow the mixture to grow in tight corners of the mould.

After material is released from the mould, it gets dehydrated and steam-heat treated to stop it from growing and to eliminate the formation of spores, the reproductive structure of fungus which can continue growing and cause allergens. The result is a brownish-white piece of material that works like polystyrene.

Ecovative modifies the weight, density, texture, and strength of EcoCradle simply by blending different ratios and types of agricultural waste. The company has fine-tuned the mixture to yield a material that weighs around 2.5lb/ft3. Traditional synthetic foams weigh between 1 to 3lb/ft3.

Acording to the company, the cost of EcoCradle is competitive with synthetic expanded foams. Synthetic foams depend on finite resources. EcoCradle can be made from different types of agriculture waste. The growing and forming of EcoCradle entails no complex machinery and requires less energy than manufacturing synthetic foams, a tenth that used to make foam packaging, a number which the company hopes to reduce markedly by replacing the steam heating stage by a sterilisation treatment based on natural oils.

EcoCradle can be composted, mulched, or simply thrown away because the material is 100% biodegradable. Depending on temperature, moisture, and biological activity, the material breaks down over the course of four to 12 weeks in a healthy, active compost. The material breaks down faster when broken into smaller pieces.

The material can replace parts of furniture such as the structural cores found in tabletops. Or, it can serve as a sustainable alternative to seating foams. The material is inherently fire retardant, which alone is a breakthrough in the seating-foam industry as concern continues to build over the use of toxic fire retardants.

Ecovative has used the material as insulation in a number of commercial and residential buildings. The company is also developing a mushroom material capable of absorbing and dissipating energy for use in vehicle door panels and bumpers.

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