Mycelium Materials: Fantastic Fungal Innovations will Fungal Composites Take Over the World?

The enchanting potential of fungi has captivated scientists, environmentalists and innovators for decades. Their efforts have developed a ground-breaking new composite made by growing fungi with a seemingly endless list of applications. These fantastic fungal innovations are rewriting the rules of sustainable design, offering a glimpse into a future where eco-consciousness and cutting-edge technology coalesce.

Mycelium Composite Blocks
Mycelium Composite Blocks | International Journal of Design

What is Mycelium

A Mycelium is a root-like structure of a Fungus that consists of a network of branching threads known as Hyphae. Fungi use them to absorb nutrients from the soil and are a vital part of terrestrial and marine ecosystem function.

These fungal roots contribute to the decomposition of organic compounds and are effective at breaking down many organic carbon structure molecules. As a result, Mycelium can successfully eradicate some pollutants from their environment in a process known as mycoremediation. They maintain soil health, increase water and nutrient absorption efficiency for many plants and are an important food source for many soil-dwelling invertebrates.

These fascinating networks can be so small that they’re invisible to the naked eye or larger than any other living organism (see Armillaria Ostoyae). Mycelia have an incredible range of functions that have helped sustain the balance of ecosystems for hundreds of millions of years. Now, this fungus has found a new purpose as a versatile, eco-friendly material.

Mycelium Network

How can Mycelium Become a Construction Material

Mycelium composites consist of a base material which is then used as a substrate to grow a network of the fungus. The Hyphae are allowed to grow around and in the base material, breaking it down into the essential nutrients needed for growth. After some time, the fungus completely envelops the substrate in layers of threaded roots to form a composite. 

The base for the composite is usually a raw or recycled material such as timber, hemp, woodchips or paper. To start, the base material is imbued with Mycelium spores and then packaged into a mould of the desired composite shape, e.g. a brick. Once filled, the moulds are stored in an area with controlled CO2, humidity, temperature and airflow to facilitate the healthy growth of the mycelium. The natural adhesive properties of the fungus bind the material together as the network grows, creating a stable structure.

The Three Stages of Mycelium composite production
3 stages of Mycelium composite production - Spore, substrate and composite | Credit Silver Hayes

Mycelium grows extremely fast; the first fibres can be found within a few hours of germination. The speed of the growing process depends on the Mycelium strain, growing conditions and the desired thickness/density of the material but generally takes a few days to a week from start to finish.

Despite Mycelium being a living organism, its properties can easily be altered by manipulating small elements of the production process.

 For example, the Mycelium’s ability to break down the sugars from the substrate influences its growth rate; the more sugar it can consume, the faster it will grow. Whilst the overall nutrient balance is still essential for optimal growth rate, sugar availability can be controlled to regulate material toughness as the more biomass binding the composite structure there is, the tougher/denser it will be.

The choice of strain is also influential in the properties of the material. Different species of mycelium have naturally different thicknesses and strengths. Substrate composition, post-growth treatment and environmental conditions all influence the properties of the final product.

The organism’s sensitivity to its environment can sometimes cause complications.

For this reason, careful considerations in the growing environment must be taken to ensure the durability and resilience of the material. If the mycelium digests the substrate too quickly or absorbs too much water in the growth phase, then the final product could be structurally compromised. This sensitivity, although challenging to manage, contributes to the diversity of material properties. This has sparked the creation of various composite materials, each finding numerous applications in multiple fields.

Packaging Pioneers

One of the most common applications for Mycelium composites is packaging. Packaging is often made from plastic due to its lightness, durability and cost-effectiveness however, significant environmental damages have been caused by its use. One of the most significant problems is plastics’ slow rate of biodegradation, which complicates the effective disposal of waste and contributes to the excessive build-up of littered items.

Mycelium packaging provides a solution to this issue as it can be produced at a low cost using recycled materials, which will degrade naturally in as little as a few weeks. Once the packaging has served its purpose, it can be reused in several different ways, including fertiliser, bio-fuel, mycoremediation and even recycled building materials. Ecovative were the first brand to pioneer Mycelium packaging in 2007. The brand was created from a university project developing mushroom-based insulation and as a testament to the brilliance of mushrooms, has now expanded to a multimillion-dollar materials company that uniquely sells Mycelium products.  

Ecovative’s grow-it-yourself Mycelium material kit

Wide-Ranging Applications

Mycelium is truly one of the most versatile products there has ever been. It can be used for high-performance foam in footwear,  food as plant-based alternatives, sustainable clothing, cosmetics and this is just the beginning. As Mycelium products gain popularity, production processes will upscale and further research will not only improve the material’s aptitude for its current applications but will also create new ones.

One of the most exciting applications for Mycelium and potentially the most impactful is in construction materials. Mycelium composites require very little energy to manufacture since the main body of the process relies on natural growth. This is ideal from an economic and ecological standpoint as it makes the manufacturing process both cheap and low carbon. The material circularity is also very good. Substrates are often formed from agricultural waste and recycled materials and are easily reused at the end of their life, sometimes even reprocessed into more construction materials.

Mycelium composites are just as viable from a practical perspective too. The production method is suitable for mass scales which is key to facilitating widespread, economical usage.

Mycelium can also be exceptionally strong; Mycelium bricks have been produced that, relative to their weight, are stronger than concrete! Of course, conventional concrete is far stronger than any mycelium composite, but concrete is also a lot denser. 1 cubic meter of concrete weighs approximately 2.4 tonnes, whereas the Mycelium equivalent weighs only 43 kg.

These bricks have been put to some creative tests, such as The HY-FI installation, an aesthetic circular tower of Mycelium blocks in New York. The structure was designed to display the potential of circular materials and was made almost entirely of grown and compostable bricks.

This lightweight quality has opened up new possibilities for Mycelium applications such as insulation. Mykofoam is a type of rigid insulation made by the company Mykor. The composite is made from recycled paper waste and boasts a carbon-negative production process. Compared to expanded polystyrene (EPS), Mykor’s manufacturing process consumes 90% less water, 40% less energy, and produces 60% less CO2 emissions. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, Mykofoam is also low toxicity, fire resistant, an acoustic regulator and moisture resistant, as well as being a great lightweight insulator.

Mykofoam a Mycelium Insulation from Mykor
A sample of Mykofoam insulation

The development of Mycelium insulation led to another interesting showcase of sustainable materials with this year’s Hayes Pavilion at Glastonbury Festival. The 2023 pavilion had a spiral design and was built using a combination of Mycelium clad walls and timber. The composite was provided by manufacturers BIOHM and Grown with the intention of promoting sustainable materials in the creative industries and was considered a success.

The Mycelium Hayes Pavilion

The Future of Mycelium

The market for Mycelium composites and materials is already establishing itself well and was valued at $170 million in 2022. Many Mycelium material manufacturers such as Ecovative and MOGU, are growing rapidly and are generating a lot of positive media attention and international recognition.

Meanwhile, new developers of Mycelium products are appearing on the market frequently. Mycelium itself is a remarkable material; the manufacturing method lends itself to mass production, it scores very highly on sustainability metrics and the novel concept of a grown material is helping spread awareness of products rapidly. Considering the growing pressures on all industries to make a green transition, the impetus to switch to more sustainable alternatives will accelerate the incorporation of Mycelium into the built environment.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many newly developed materials, especially in construction, regulations are slow to certify new products and demand for Mycelium composites lags behind the progress of development. Despite this, there is little doubt that the Mycelium market will expand tremendously in the years to come. According to Market research, the projected CAGR for Mycelium materials in the 2023-2028 period is a huge 27.48%. It seems that every aspect of this emerging material is lined up for success, poised to deliver the positive and sustainable impact it was intended to.

Learn More on Firstplanit

Click here to read about transparent wood composite, a clear alternative to plastic? 

If you’d like to find out more about the advantages of Mycelium and how it could benefit your project, head to Firstplanit.

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