By Helen Alford
Lots of the resources we use today have a high environmental impact. We all know about the scale of plastic pollution, and how food waste has increased in recent years. Even our clothes, our building materials and our furniture have a significant footprint. It is a fact that the things we have are seldom carbon-neutral.
But what if there was a way we could make objects and clothes out of a readily available, 100% natural, low cost and low impact material?
Well, that is what California based start-up Mycoworks is doing. A diverse team of scientists, engineers and designers are working to solve world issues – like climate change – through fungi. They use mycelium, the threadlike part of fungi that we rarely get to see.
The mycelium is a complex network of individual filamentous strands called hyphae. It lies beneath the ground, takes up nutrients and produces the fruiting body of the fungus.
Mycoworks uses mycelium to grow useful products. Their main creation, the most developed and the one with the most scope currently, is leather.
The process of developing animal leather is costly, drawn out and has a significant impact on the environment, particularly in the case of cowhide leather. A large piece of pure leather that is undyed and unshaped would take around two years to produce. Dying the leather or making it into a wearable piece of clothing would more require even more time and money, and create more waste.
In contrast, a piece of mycelium leather of the same size would take two weeks. While the cowhide leather would produce almost 15kg of carbon dioxide, the mushroom leather is carbon neutral.
Growing the fungal leather is a closed loop. Any waste is 100% biodegradable and simply used as food to grow the next batch. Essentially, the fungi are infinitely renewable. Of course, animals reproduce and could be considered infinitely renewable too, but not without significant cost and impact.
Different sizes and shapes of fungal leather can be grown, too. As for making the leather a bit more unique – Mycoworks have found that they can simply grow different colours and patterns into the fungus itself, eliminating the need for dye. Fasteners like buttons or toggles can also be grown into the material. The leather is also constantly being tested for its strength. It is already as strong as deer skin and stronger than sheep and synthetic leather.
Considering how many greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock, what Mycoworks is doing could really help the planet should mushroom leather catch on.
As CTO Philip Ross says in this short YouTube video, “[Mycelium] can go on to replace so many aspects of our generated world right now that we extract from things that can’t be regenerated”.
The company is also looking at using fungi to create building materials. This is not necessarily a new idea. In 2014 an exhibit at MoMA PS1 (a prominent art institution in the United States) was a tower built out of mushroom based materials. However, the bricks were made by adding mycelium to crop waste. Whilst still quite environmentally friendly, the carbon footprint of the crop waste is unlikely to be lower than that of the mycelium.
Ross has developed a 100% mycelium brick strong enough to dent metal. These bricks have the potential to replace normal construction materials in certain cases. They are resistant to water damage and mould and are stronger than concrete pound-for-pound. The bricks can also be grown in such a way that they are able to float on water. Fire-resistance is another property of these bricks, which is not only desirable but could save lives.
While the demands of the construction industry are too great for this to become a widespread material right now, who knows where we might be in 10 years? In the same video as above, Ross explains how his hopes for the future extend beyond bricks and leather jackets: “My hope is that this will become a globalized industry… Eventually you will be growing your solar panels, telephones and other types of things like that at a fungus based substrate”.
It looks as though this vision might be realised. Several companies have expressed interest in exploring the usefulness of mycelium in the automotive industry. It is also been looked as a replacement for Styrofoam in order to reduce the negative impact of packaging. Says Ross in another video: “The possibilities of what you can do with mycelium are scarily endless”.
About the Author
I’m an MSc Science Communication and BSc Biological Sciences graduate having studied at the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham. I’ve got a particular interest in microbiology, immunology, mycology, and how they often overlap! I’m passionate about science communication and am involved with a local radio show focused on science and technology (https://web.sheffieldlive.org/shows/the-live-science-radio-show/