Materials Science 101: Molding Mushrooms

By Dustin Renwick

Compostable packing for shipping wineYour new TV or fancy bottle of wine came in a cardboard box that can be recycled, but thanks to a small, eco-friendly business, those white packing pieces that cushion and protect consumer goods inside boxes could go a step further in the product life cycle.

Ecovative, located in New York, wants you to throw the packaging in your compost pile.

Typically, those pieces are made of polystyrene foam, which hangs around in landfills for hundreds of years after it’s been discarded. Ecovative can replace that foam with another white material: mycelium.

Fungi absorb nutrients with their mycelia. Think of them as the roots of a mushroom.

In a five-day process, Ecovative can grow mycelia into all-natural packaging. Better yet, mycelia don’t need water or light to curl and coil into a dense, customizable form that packs eight miles of fibers into each cubic inch of material.

The other major selling point for the mushroom-based materials is that they grow in agricultural waste streams that can be adapted to regional sources. Corn stalks can be used in the Midwest, but a factory in China could use castoffs from rice production. The mycelia grows throughout the organic mass until the mold is filled, and then Ecovative heats the material to stop growth.

The company won an EPA Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 2009, two years after co-founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre started out. It is also one of the new SBIR awardees announced today, each another potential success story. (Read Ecovative’s winning research proposal: Growth of a Fungal Biopolymer to Displace Common Synthetic Polymers and Exotic Wood.)

“EPA was first to take the leap and validate this tech,” said McIntyre, the company’s chief scientist.

“The EPA SBIR was really critical for our early stage of development for several reasons. One of the most important was the peer-reviewed validation. And the funding really supported early-stage efforts in moving from the lab bench to a commercially viable prototype production line.”

Bayer, the company’s CEO, recently told The New Yorker that Ecovative aspires to be the new Dow or Dupont. McIntyre said those companies represent ubiquity for consumer products.

“We’d like to be the same,” he said. “We want to have the broadest impact possible in terms of providing environmentally friendly solutions.”

McIntyre and Bayer started small, but their company now employs 54 full-time workers overseeing projects such as new construction materials, opportunities in the automotive market, and a way to replace common plastics in packaging. The work has attracted more EPA SBIR contracts and other awards.

In May, the Small Business Administration recognized Ecovative with the Tibbetts Award, which highlights the best SBIR projects each year. The three criteria for the Tibbetts are technical innovation, business impact and broader social and economic benefit.

Mushroom materials are innovative, durable alternatives to products we often use but rarely think about. In fact, there’s a chance parts of your next house might be grown instead of fabricated or built, adding a new twist to living in harmony with nature.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.


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