Mushrooms are amazing. Not only do they tasty-up pizza, pasta, soup and salads; not only are edible ‘shrooms pretty much calorie-free and full of minerals (which ones depend on the variety) and immune-supporting compounds; not only can they engender transcendental trips, but they soak up chemicals from toxic environments (including BPA), don’t need pesticides or herbicides to grow, and many are gorgeous (or at least interesting-looking) to boot! And now we can add another really impressive thing that ‘shrooms can do for us: packaging!

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[youtube width=”537″ height=”323″][/youtube]I talked to Ellen at Ford about how the car company might use mushroom-based biomaterials in the future.

Ecovative Design in New York has used mushrooms to create a heat and fire-resistant, energy-absorbing, biodegradable (even anaerobically, without oxygen), and low-energy material called Mycobond. It was originally developed by two Rensselaer Polytechnic University grads under a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant — according to the NSF,, Mycobond requires “… just one eighth the energy and one tenth the carbon dioxide of traditional foam packing material” to produce. It can be made in all shapes and thicknesses, depending on its use, and can replace unsustainable, environmentally persistent foam packaging in almost every application that it is currently used for. Think electronics packing, insulation, even (as Ellen at Ford speaks about above) as a panel or bumper for cars.

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The ‘feed’ that the mushrooms grow on can vary, meaning that locally available materials can be used, which makes the product ideal for manufacturing all over the world: “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 burrs, 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. And according to the Ecocradle site, it is cost-competitive with polluting polystyrene and other packaging materials.

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Before mushrooms can be grown the source material needs to be disinfected (to kill competing spores in order to hold its final shape), but that’s a natural process too. The inventors have replaced a more energy-intensive steam-treatment sterilization process with one that uses the natural organism-killing properties of “cinnamon-bark oil, thyme oil, oregano oil and lemongrass oil,” which anyone familiar with herbal remedies will recognize are often used for natural disinfection. According to one of the inventors of Mycobond, Gavin McIntyre (on the NSF site devoted to the material): “The biological disinfection process simply emulates nature, in that it uses compounds that plants have evolved over centuries to inhibit microbial growth. The unintended result is that our production floor smells like a pizza shop.

While initially designed to be sold to industrial-level businesses the world over, the company hopes to have an in-home system available by 2013 so we can all make our own mushroom materials to personal specifications.

+ Ecovative Design