The must for mushrooms in material design

The State of the World’s Fungi 2018 report, the first of its kind and written by scientists from Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in London, emphasises the importance of fungi in various areas, including material design.

Making other materials
Archeological evidence shows that humans have been using mushrooms for food, drinks and medicine for at least 6,000 years. However, less known is that fungi are also used in the processing of all sorts of materials. The report mentions a few examples, including cotton processing, in which fungi spores are used to break down excess bleach in the wastewater, and to remove fine cotton threads, preventing the fibre from pilling. Fungi are also used in the processing of leather, by degreasing the hides, as well as paper manufacturing, using spores to speed up the pulping process and reduce water usage. Lastly, the reports mentions plastic, as “[p]lastic car parts, synthetic rubber and Lego are made using itaconic acid derived from species of Aspergillus”.

Recently, the material mycelium is gaining popularity. Mycelium is made from the root system of fungi and can be grown in all forms imaginable. When dried, the material has similar properties to polystyrene and is therefore a suitable replacement in for instance packaging material. Other uses include products like light shades and wine coolers, as the material has great insulating properties. In addition to packaging and products, people are also experimenting with using the material in architectural projects.

While mycelium can be used as a solid material, it is also possible to make fabric out of it. Examples include the Mycotex dress by designer Aniela Hoitink, and the material Muskin.

Cleaning up after us
In addition to help making materials, fungi can also help break them down, and not just natural and labeled biodegradable materials. The researchers remark that fungi are being used to clean up pollutants such as oil spills and toxic chemicals like pesticides.

Recent research has shown that mushroom spores also have the potential to clean up acidic radioactive waste as one of the most radiation-resistant organisms on Earth.

In addition, a recent study showed that a fungus known as Aspergillus tubingensis is capable of breaking down plastics such as polyester polyurethane in weeks rather than years.

In a world with an increasing need for sustainable materials and a solution for pollution, mushrooms seem to be the future.

Photo credits: see photos