Eben Bayer is the co-founder of Ecovative, a company based in Green Island, N.Y., that makes packaging from agricultural waste and the mycelium of mushrooms. He says the next step is to make building materials this way.
Richard Schiffman: How did you come to make packaging materials from mushrooms?
Eben Bayer: I grew up on a farm in Vermont and noticed the mycelium—essentially the "roots"—of mushrooms clumping wood chips together. Years later, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I was working to develop a better insulation material. I remembered mushrooms' bonding ability and began to think about industrial applications. After making a few samples, I teamed up with Gavin McIntyre and our professor Burt Swersey to figure out how this could work as a product.
RS: Can your products be made cheaply enough to compete with Styrofoam?
EB: Yes. In general, we are cost competitive with synthetic packaging materials such as expanded polystyrene and polyethylene. Plastics start with expensive, finite feedstocks derived from oil or natural gas. We're starting with waste from farms.
RS: What advantages do these biomaterials have over conventional materials?
EB: For more than a century, humans have been using petrochemicals to make plastics. Eventually we will run out, and if we aren't careful toxic waste will choke our oceans and landfills. Biomaterials like ours are sustainable, nonpolluting, and need little outside energy to make. They also dissolve back into the earth at the end of their useful lives.
RS: Can you create durable materials from fungi?
EB: The strength of our products comes from the mycelium, which consists of millions of tiny fibers. The fibers bond with chitin—a natural plastic produced by mushrooms, similar to what crab shells are made of. Together, these act like a glue, fusing agricultural waste such as seed husks into solid forms. Our materials basically self-assemble; the organism is doing most of the work.
RS: You have also developed building materials. Have any been used in construction yet?
EB: The first experimental use is happening in our warehouse—we're growing a miniature house from mushrooms! Eventually, we expect our products to replace materials such as the plastic foams used in insulation and acoustic tiles.
RS: You are able to bind your materials to wood without chemical glues. How does that work?
EB: The mycelium naturally bonds to wood, so we can use it to bind thin veneers and other materials without formaldehyde-based glues. We're also hoping to use the mycelium as an adhesive in composites like fiberboard and particle board.
RS: Have your products attracted much interest?
EB: We're now working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to produce materials for buoys. We also supply packaging to a number of Fortune 500 companies, and this summer we're collaborating with the company Sealed Air to build a manufacturing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
RS: What is the biggest challenge to more widespread use of your technology?
EB: Our key challenge at the moment is a wonderful one: scaling up to meet the growing demand.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.