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Latest “Green” Packing Material? Mushrooms!

A composite of inedible agricultural waste and mushroom roots, its manufacture requires just one-tenth the carbon dioxide of traditional foam packing material.


A new packing material that grows itself is now appearing in shipped products across the United States.

The composite of inedible agricultural waste and mushroom roots is called MycoBond, and its manufacture requires just one-eighth the energy and one-tenth the carbon dioxide of traditional foam packing material. And unlike most foam substitutes, when no longer useful, it makes great compost in the garden.

The technology was the brainchild of two former Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute undergraduates, Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, who founded Ecovative Design of Green Island, New York, to bring their idea into production.

“We don’t manufacture materials, we grow them,” says McIntyre. “We’re converting agricultural byproducts into a higher-value product.”

Because the feedstock is based on renewable resources, he adds, the material has an economic benefit as well: it is not prone to the price fluctuations common to synthetic materials derived from such sources as petroleum. “All of our raw materials are inherently renewable and they are literally waste streams,” says McIntyre.

With support from the U.S. National Science Foundation, McIntyre and Bayer are developing a new, less energy-intensive method to sterilize their agricultural-waste starter material—a necessary step for enabling the mushroom roots, called mycelia, to grow. McIntyre and Bayer are replacing a steam-heat process with a treatment made from cinnamon-bark oil, thyme oil, oregano oil and lemongrass oil.

The sterilization process, which kills any spores that could compete with Ecovative’s mushrooms, is almost as effective as the autoclaving process used to disinfect medical instruments and will allow the MycoBond products to grow in the open air, instead of their current clean-room environment.

Much of the manufacturing process is nearly energy-free, with the mycelia growing around and digesting agricultural starter material—such as cotton seed or wood fiber—in an environment that is both room-temperature and dark. Because the growth occurs within a molded plastic structure, which the producers customize for each application, no energy is required for shaping the products.

Once fully formed, each piece is heat-treated to stop the growth process and delivered to the customer—though with the new, easier, disinfection treatment, Bayer and McIntyre are hoping that by 2013 the entire process can be packaged as a kit, allowing shipping facilities, and even homeowners, to grow their own MycoBond materials.

“The traction that they have gotten with their early customers demonstrates how companies can build strong businesses around products whose primary competitive advantage lies in their sustainability,” says Ben Schrag, the National Science Foundation’s program officer who oversees Ecovative’s Small Business Innovation Research award.

In addition to the packaging product, called EcoCradle, Ecovative has developed a home insulation product dubbed Greensulates. Comparable in effectiveness to foam insulation, it is also highly flame retardant.

Ecovative has also received support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

 

Josh Chamot is the media officer for engineering at the U.S. National Science Foundation.