Sunday, May 30, 2010

An Alternative to Styrofoam: It’s Green. It’s locally grown. It’s fungi!

In my last post, I described fungal mycelium and its potential as a building material. On the West Coast the artist Phil Ross used it to create his art.

But on the East Coast, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, 2007 graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have a more practical vision. At Ecovative Design in Green Island, New York, a company they co-founded, these young inventors are creating sheets of Ecocradle™, a packing material with many of the same properties as Styrofoam, but manufactured using 1/10 the energy, and without the petrochemicals.

At Ecovative they mix agricultural byproducts with mycelium, a network of fungal strands, and allow the mixture to to grow in shallow forms in a darkened room for seven days. They then render the product inert with heat. The heating process dries out the product and stops the growth of the fungus. The “skin” apparent on the surface is formed by the fungus, not by the application of any finish coat. If you want the whole story, you can check them out on YouTube.

Ecocradle™ is a good insulator and can be molded to fit any shape, so it’s a natural for shipping bottles of wine, or small electronics, for example. It does not burn, but it does decompose when broken into pieces and put in the garden. Ecocradle™ is not allowed to grow for long enough to fruit and create mushrooms, which is the part of the fungus that produces the spores, so there is no concern about allergens.

The agricultural byproducts currently being used at Ecovative are cotton seed and buckwheat hulls which are essentially without any commercial worth. Company representative Sam Harrington wrote, “We strive to utilize agricultural wastes that have almost no value. We avoid agricultural byproducts that can be used for livestock feed, and because we focus on materials that are high in lignin, they typically can’t be used in cellulosic ethanol processes. The raw material inputs of EcoCradle™ are selected based on regionally available agricultural by-products. So a factory in Texas or China might use cotton seed hulls, and a factory in Virginia or Spain might use rice husks and soybean hulls. By manufacturing regionally, and using local feedstocks, we aim to minimize the trucking of raw and finished materials.” Currently EcoCradle™ is only manufactured in Green Island, but the dream for its future production is a global one.

Using very little energy and no petrochemicals, Bayer and McIntyre have created a viable alternative to Styrofoam from materials considered waste. And at the end of its life, EcoCradle™ can be composted. Their invention, commercially valuable and made from waste, need never become waste. How great is this?

The process is much the same for Greensulate™, a material for home insulation which is also in development. Harrington stated, “EcoCradle™ and Greensulate™ are essentially the same material, but tuned to optimize for R-value or cushioning ability.” Just think, there may come a day soon when you will WANT fungus in your walls.

The company founders have already received a number of grants and honors. EcoCradle™ was named Best of What’s New in 2009 in Popular Science’s Green Technology, and Greensulate™ was featured as a forensic clue on CSI New York.

The Ecovative website store is up and running. For $5.00 you can order a sample of Ecocradle™. You’ve never seen anything like it, and it makes a great show-and-tell for Green Drinks.

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