Fungi roots: the building blocks of a circular economy?

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Mycelium insulation panel from VUB

In the global search for more sustainable materials, one substance has recently begun attracting a lot of attention: mycelium, the white roots of fungi. VUB researcher Elise Elsacker has been studying the unique properties of mycelium and its potential for lowering environmental impact in the building and manufacturing industries, helping us move towards a circular economy.

This article was authored by Andy Furniere.

This spring, Elise Elsacker finished her PhD project on the potential of mycelium as a circular, sustainable, and biodegradable building material. The idea behind the research – called Mycelium Matters – was seeded during Elsacker’s time working as an architect at an engineering bureau:

“I observed first-hand how much waste and CO2 emissions the construction sector produces, which of course has a big impact on our environment. I wanted to look for alternatives to traditional building materials, like concrete and plastic, that don’t cause pollution.”

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Outside her work hours, Elsacker started searching for eco-friendly alternatives, conducting her experiments at the DIY labs of citizen science project ReaGent. During this time, Elsacker started learning about the unique characteristics of mycelium. She became so convinced of its potential that she left her job for a PhD on the topic at the VUB.

“Five years ago, only a handful of labs in Europe were looking into this substance,” says Elsacker. “Most of the activity in the field was taking place in the US. Now, most European countries have researchers exploring the opportunities offered by mycelium.”

The root of a range of materials

In nature, mycelium is normally hidden from view, growing underground as the roots of fungi. It consists of a network of thin, white filaments that have the rare capacity to break down hard woody plant matter, often forming a dense ‘clump’ of material in the process.

“Mycelium is so interesting because you can use it as a basis to create eco-friendly alternatives for a whole range of materials,” explains Elsacker. “My research focused on building materials, but it can also be used to manufacture alternatives for things like leather, plastic packaging, and possibly even meat substitutes.”

“Mycelium is so interesting because you can use it as a basis to create eco-friendly alternatives for a whole range of materials.” – Elise Elsacker

Mycelium’s potential as a building material was showcased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) in 2014, when the museum exhibited a 12-meter-high tower made of mycelium bricks. “That was an inspiring project,” says Elsacker, “But mycelium-based materials are actually best used for components inside buildings, because they have to be protected against humidity. For example, they can serve to make insulation panels, acoustic panels, furniture, and alternatives for Styrofoam and synthetic glue.”

Fungi for a circular economy

The production process of mycelium-based materials is particularly eco-friendly: it’s based on waste products (often agricultural or food waste), and doesn’t require high temperatures (unlike the production of materials such as steel and bricks). Since mycelium-based materials are also biodegradable, they’re a perfect fit for a circular economy, if produced from the right resources.

“There are many waste streams that can serve as resources for mycelium-based materials,” Elsacker says. “To keep production sustainable, it’s important that it’s limited to revalorizing those streams, rather than cultivating or extracting new resources for upscaling purposes.”

“I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg; the unexplored potential of mycelium is still enormous.” – Elise Elsacker

There are millions of fungi species, so as part of her research Elsacker devised a method to examine which are most suitable for use as materials. She also investigated how to improve the structural properties of mycelium with various additives, and developed a new manufacturing process for architectural components using robots and experimenting with 3D printing. “To be honest,” she clarifies, “I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg; the unexplored potential of mycelium is still enormous.”

Following the completion of her PhD, Elsacker is now working as postdoctoral researcher at Newcastle University in the UK, where she is studying the use of living mycelium. “In the current production process, the living organisms are killed,” Elsacker explains. “But keeping the mycelium alive may have advantages – it could allow for the development of self-healing materials, which repair damage like our skin heals wounds.”

Mycelium materials in the market

Companies around the world are increasingly exploring the advantages of mycelium-based products. One of the pioneers in the US is Ecovative, a biodegradable packaging producer. Also in the US, sportswear manufacturer Adidas recently launched the ‘Stan Smith Mylo’ sneaker made of mushroom leather. Many smaller companies in Europe are following suit: in Italy, Mogu makes mycelium-based building components such as acoustic panels and floor tiles; Dutch company Grown produces a variety of products, also for construction; and another Dutch start-up called Loop is even using mycelium to make coffins.

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In Belgium, commercial mycelium adoption is going a bit slower. Elsacker established the innovation agency together with entrepreneurs Jasper Bloemen and Winnie Poncelet (who has since left the company) to support companies trying to implement a bio-based business model. “There are many Belgian companies that already have the right infrastructure to enter this business domain,” says Elsacker. “Mushroom producers, of course, but also companies using fermentation processes for things like beer or bread production. We need subsidies to kickstart economic activity in this field.”

Header Image: Insulation panel made of mycelium that grew on a substrate of 300 disposable coffee cups and beech wood chips. Photo taken by Lennert Van Rompaey for his master’s thesis “Design by Degradation, Degradation by Design: Fungal bioremediation of plastic waste in the new construction paradigm” (VUB).