“The fungus you want in your walls.” Now that’s a phrase I’m sure you never thought you would hear. With the threat of certain fungal species associated with sick building syndrome becoming an increasingly common concern… who wants fungus in their walls? Well the minds behind Ecovative Design are intent on convincing the world that everyone should have fungus in their walls, and in their packaging. From what I’ve read, I’d have to agree and I’d like to share what I’ve learned with all of you.
Ecovative Design is exactly what its name suggests; a company using ecological knowledge and innovative techniques to design eco-friendly substitutes for common products. Ecocradle® Packaging is a green alternative to traditional styrofoam packaging and Greensulate® is an alternative to traditional insulation for housing. The company was launched in 2007 by two graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre. Their idea of changing the way common materials are made has become a working reality through all of the grants they have won. I find their achievements and ingenuity impressive. It takes a lot of hard work and unique thinking to create and run a company with an ambitious goal, especially in this economic climate.2
Ecovative Design’s products use natural ingredients to grow biodegradable alternatives to insulation and Styrofoam packaging. In their products, bulking agents–husks and hulls of various commonly grown food stuffs–are held together by fungal mycelia. The idea to bind natural products together this way was sparked by an interest in the way fungi bound wood chips. It was a simple observation, but it opened a curious mind to new possibilities. It turns out that the use of a fungus is key to the production process. The enzymes that the fungus secretes and the filamentous structure of mycelium convert lignocellulosic waste into a cohesive product. By maintaining a controlled micro-environment Ecovative Design can grow their products in an approximately week long process. The versatility of fungal enzymes allows for many different types of husks and hulls to be used in the production process, allowing for specialization in production based on region. Cotton hulls can be used in one region where they are a common waste product; soy growing regions can exploit soybean hulls. Ecovative Design looks to not only produce a green product, but to make the whole process as eco-friendly as possible.2
Ecovative Design’s products are made possible by the unique way that fungi grow. The growth of mycelium is key. Their fungus belongs to the phylum Basidiomycota (a group you know, since it includes mushrooms, bracket fungi, and stinkhorns, among others). The company specifically uses a fungus capable of producing dimitic or trimitic hyphae. These types of fungi contain two or three different types of hyphae respectively (which fungus? that’s proprietary info). The different types of hyphae give the growing fungus different characteristics, such as increased thickness or strength. All fungi create generative hyphae, but some can also make skeletal hyphae or binding hyphae.1
In case you were thinking of your spore allergies: The fungi are rendered inert, unable to continue to grow or produce allergenic spores, by a key step in Ecovative Design’s production process. The production and stabilization of Greensulate® and Ecocradle® prevents the fungi from producing spores.2
I’m sure you’re also concerned about how the Greensulate® handles traditional standard tests for insulation products. This I found really interesting. Greensulate® stands up better to fire damage than traditional insulation. This can be seen in a snippet of an interesting video that Ecovative Design made for the Google 10^100 Project. But dried basidiomycete mycelia are highly combustible, so how is Greensulate® fire retardant? It’s the bulking agents within the insulation rather than the fungus that makes the product fire retardant. The bulking agents, a combination of rice husks, buckwheat hulls, and cottonseed hulls, have a naturally high silica content that prevents the product from burning readily. The Greensulate® product also meets current standards for flood damage and behaves similarly to lumber in these tests. One test found that the material absorbed less than 8% water by mass while maintaining structural integrity. Greensulate® also performs similarly to lumber in tests of resistance to fungal growth. The ability of Greensulate® to resist fungal growth is achieved by the addition of a boride solution, but less is necessary in Greensulate® than in traditional cellulose insulation.2
I’m thinking Ecovative Design is definitely on the right track. It’s exciting to see young entrepreneurs putting fungus to good use in a new way, and I hope to hear more about this company in the future. Keep on the lookout for more news about Ecovative Design, as they continue to win grants and awards for their eco-friendly and innovative ways. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for people to be excited to have fungus in their walls and as an alternative to petroleum-based packaging.
- Corner EJH (1966). “Monograph of cantharelloid fungi”. Ann. Bot. Mem. 2: 1-255.
- Most information was found directly on the Ecovative Design website: www.ecovativedesign.com
Many thanks to Gavin McIntyre of Ecovative Design for his time and information.