Mushrooms: nature’s polymers

At our event Material Xperience 2014, which we hosted last week in Rotterdam, one of the most popular items in our exhibition was a type of leather grown from mushroom residue.

The mushroom leather on display is called Muskin. It is made using extracts from fungus buttons (i.e. the ‘tops’ of mushrooms). The specific process leads to a very soft leather, almost like suede. It is produced by the Italian developer GZE.

We previously wrote about ‘myx’, a material which was invented by Danish product designer Jonas Edvard. In essence, the spores in his material fuse with a hemp or linen fibre mat as they grow. So the mushrooms consume raw material and then solidify into a light, flexible and even edible textile.

Such materials can, of course, be composted easily if they’re no longer wanted.

There is an important reason for using spores from mushrooms and other fungi, particularly over plants. Given space, spores grow in all directions at once. As they grow, random patterns form between multiple spores, which connect around a substrate.

When grown on a clean substrate, such as a metal or glass plate, the spores have almost ideal conditions. Such spores can be soaked in a sugar and salt solution for better growing.

Growing can also take place on a fibrous mat, such as plant residue. In this case, the spores and fibres fuse, like a resin around a matrix. This is the same principle that composite materials rely on for strength.

It is this characteristic that shows the potential. The advantages are clear: cheap, easy to produce and bio-degradable materials that are getting stronger as new research is being performed.

One of the pioneers in this process is Ecovative, a New York company that produces packaging and other materials based on the mycelium spore. They are all grown in laboratory conditions, which allows varying densities to be made too.

Recent developments have also led to more impact- and fire-resistant spore-grown materials, which can rightly be considered ‘nature’s polymers’, though without the obvious drawbacks of hydrocarbon polymers, which are very tough to break down.

We’ll be returning to more highlights of the show, from the most popular lectures to the most talked about materials, in the coming period.

For more information, have a look at the book ‘Mycelium running; how mushrooms can help save the world’ by Paul Stamets.

You can watch a TED talk of MycoBond co-inventor Eben Bayer, on whether mushrooms could be the new plastic, here.


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