03 February 2011

6 cool ways that mushrooms morph into eco-superstars


The fibrous roots of mushrooms, commonly referred to as ‘mycelium’, are utilized in a wide range of mycotechnological applications. In addition to successfully stabilizing fragile regions prone to soil erosion, they also work quite effectively at filtering pollutants from soil and even more remarkably, they slowly but surely mitigate oil-contaminated substrates accidentally spilled into the ocean. They have been used in real-world post-disaster cleanup efforts (following the 2007 San Francisco Bay Cosco Busan oil spill, for example) to great effect since oyster mushroom mycelium happily degrade hydrocarbons to ‘acceptable levels’.


Gliocladiun roseum is a specific type of endophytic fungus that thrives inside an ancient Patagonian rainforest ‘Ulmo tree’ (Eucryphia cordifolia). It’s especially intriguing to scientists because it naturally releases a combination of 55 different gases and fatty acids, many of which are typically associated with high quality diesel fuel production. This potential ‘myco-diesel’ admittedly requires a great deal of additional research to determine its potential for efficient fuel production, but researchers are already in the process of mapping its genetic makeup as well as identifying how to cultivate it on a large-scale basis.


We live in a concrete jungle, and despite our best attempts at maintaining the infinite sidewalks and city streets weaving around our world, they still buckle and crack under the pressure of harsh environmental conditions. Makeshift tar-like repairs may do the trick (at least temporarily), but they’re often unattractive and derived from petroleum-based materials. Aaaah, but not BacillaFilla, genetically modified Bacillus subtilis soil spores that have an automatic love affair with the specific pH of your garden-variety concrete. Once they’re introduced to the cracked concrete object of their affection, they promptly stick like glue, filling in any gaps that exist with a sweet, eternal love that is the envy of the eco-set.


If you haven’t already read countless articles about the ground-breaking mushroomy advances of Ecovative Design, here’s the Cliff Notes version. Two graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – one with a deep seated interest in sustainable technology and the other with a background in mushroom harvesting – combined forces to create entirely organic, lightweight insulation panels made with a unique blend of filamentous oyster mushroom spores, flour, water, mineral-rich perlite, and recycled agricultural waste such as wood fiber, ground buckwheat/rice hulls and seed husks. Despite being organic, the whole mixture is then treated with a proprietary blend of naturally sterilizing essential oils including oregano, thyme, cinnamon and lemongrass to ensure that there is no possibility of it decomposing during its intended application.

The result of their apparently sweet-smelling, mad scientist leanings? A positively brilliant, chemical-free Styrofoam-like material called Greensulate that can keep homesteads toasty warm since it ‘traps more heat than fiberglass insulation’, releases 8 times less carbon dioxide and uses 10 times less energy (compared to the manufacture of Styrofoam) – plus it even has a class-1 fire rating!


It makes perfect sense that Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, the CEOs of Ecovative Design, extended their mushroom-based household insulation concept into the world of eco-packaging. Conventional Styrofoam – composed of a polymer derived from refined petroleum – is neither easy to recycle or biodegradable, plus throughout the manufacturing process, it releases 57 EPA-identified chemical byproducts (one of which is potentially carcinogenic to humans).

What we really need in our world is a greener alternative, and fortunately McIntyre and Bayer have come to the rescue with their entirely compostable, chemical-free alternative, dubbed EcoCradle. Made in the same way as their household insulation panels, the resulting material is dried and then molded into unique shapes that accommodate a wide range of popular consumer items such as plasma screen televisions, furniture, computers, etc. Several Fortune 500 companies are already using it to protect their goods, including Steelcase, Inc., but if your favorite biz isn't yet hip to the 'shroomy possibilities, take a precious minute to clue them in!


Integral to our society’s mobility, automobiles get us from point A to point B, but they don’t last forever, especially when we accidentally wrap them around a pole or inconveniently located building. What happens when we total our once slick wheels? Like so many other crunched, squashed, rusty and simply worn out versions, we relegate them to vehicle graveyards where they are pilfered for precious parts, melted down for scrap metal or simply allowed to wither away into oblivion.

In response to the increasing concern about automobile waste, Ford scientists have come up with a rather intriguing way to make their future models as biodegradable and carbon-neutral as possible. Using a plant-based mixture of wheat straw and mushroom mycelium (courtesy of Ecovative), they’ve been able to press it into car panel ‘molds’ and allow Mother Nature to take over from there. The ‘shroom spores happily multiply due to the presence of apparently delectable decaying eats, and in just one week, Ford has a 100% biodegradable car part-shaped panel (flecked with earthy-looking mushroom bits) that can then be dipped in bioplastic to ensure its durability.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/probonobaker