Article by Astoria Jellett
Young green company Ecovative Design is going to change the way we build things. That is, instead of building stuff, we’re going to grow stuff.
The company was founded by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, who were classmates at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In their senior Inventors’ Studio class, they hit on an incredible natural resource: mycelium, the fungus that makes up mushroom roots.
Mycelium converts hydrocarbons into carbohydrate chains. This naturally-occurring polymer wraps tenaciously around plant byproducts and holds together entire forest floors. It makes a material stronger than concrete and more insulating than fiberglass.
And since mycelium grows underground – away from the light – it requires no energy source to make, besides the plant byproducts. Mycelium works wonderfully as biocomposter, digesting available lignin and encapsulating any plant waste it doesn’t consume (and with all the food we waste even at farm level, this is a great way to repurpose it).
What Ecovative Design does is cultivate mycelium and then compress the material in a hot press, manipulating the shape of the board and removing any water so the mycelium stops growing. The result is a strong, insulating board that can be used in packaging, construction, furniture, art installations, product design, surfboards, and basically anything else you can dream up.
Ecovative’s Mushroom Material is cheaper, lighter, and stronger than particle board and is 100% compostable, biodegrading into a natural fertilizer. It uses one tenth of the energy and emits eight times less CO2 than polystyrene. It can also resist temperatures of up to 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 Fahrenheit).
Ecovative Design’s Mushroom Materials can replace styrofoam, particle board, and plastic. Since many of these products contain harmful carcinogens, it doesn’t just help the earth – it’s better for us, too.
Architectural studio The Living used Ecovative Design’s Mushroom Material last year to build an organic tower in MoMA’s PS1 Gallery.
Artist Charles Long has used it to grow over 500 tiles of 41 unique designs tessellated in his “Mycelium Mausoleum” in an exhibit at the Austin Contemporary.
Timothy Hull and Future Expansion Architects used it to create their installation The Accelerated Ruin, which will decompose outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music over the course of a year.
Designer Danielle Trofe used Ecovative’s Grow It Yourself kit to make her Mush-Lume Table Lamp.
The Ecovative team has even used it to create a house for the Tiny House Fair.
But the coolest thing Ecovative Design’s Mushroom Material has been used for? To make a drone.
Like, an actual drone.
Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center worked with a team, including Ecovative’s founders, competing in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. They made a biodegradable drone, mostly out of Mushroom Material, but to make it waterproof they covered it in proteins cloned from paper wasp saliva, which also waterproofs wasp nests.
The need for biodegradable drones is going to become a big one, not only for environmental reasons, but for security purposes – we want to leave as little trace as possible should a drone crash in sensitive territory.
So in the future, not only will we have robots, but we’ll have biologically grown, environmentally sustainable robots. Now that’s a Matrix I wouldn’t mind living in.