3 October 2011
Magic mycelium form self-assembling biocomposite
Acclaimed as a true natural polymer, “tested and tried over millions of years and guaranteed not to clog up the ecosystem”, Mycobond, is a new material that is being marketed by Ecovative Design as the green replacement for expanded polystyrene in protective packaging applications. The secret of the new material? Mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms and other fungi.
Ecovative Design has launched two products in which the new mycological composite is applied. The first was an insulation material called Greensulate, developed while the two founders of the company were still at school. The second product, EcoCradle, is a protective packaging product that is grown, not manufactured, from renewable resources and requires only an eighth of the amount of energy and a tenth of the carbon dioxide that is used to produce conventional foam packaging.
So how does it work?
The process is remarkably simple. Biomass – organic waste material, like seed husks and oat hulls– is mixed with mycelium, which then proceeds to break down the biomass into cellulose and lignin. The mycelia function as a kind of glue, allowing a 100% biocomposite to develop: the mycelia form a natural polymer matrix. The process takes place in the controlled environment of a plastic mold, which allows products and parts to be grown according to customer specification. After five days, a part is completed. It then undergoes sterilization to stop further growth, is removed from the mold and is ready for shipment.
EcoCradle is fully biodegradable. It is flame retardant, moisture and impact resistant, and has good insulation properties. It is produced using a cost-efficient and low-energy production process. The product has already won a number of prizes, including this year a Diamond Award for Excellence in Innovation, Cost/Waste Reduction and Sustainability this year at the DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovation.
Ecovative Design, founded in 2007 by two students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is already producing custom protective packaging products for several companies, including Steelcase and Dell. The company is currently upscaling production from pilot to industrial level.