Something is happening with mushrooms. (No, it’s not the fungus plague like in the HBO show The Last of Us.) The construction industry is developing remarkably eco-friendly, strong, and cost effective building materials made out of mushrooms. This is made possible because of a part of mushrooms known as “mycelium.” So what is mycelium and how can it be used in construction?
What is Mycelium?
What we call “mushrooms” are actually just a piece of a whole fungal organism. “Mushrooms” are made up of three different parts. The mushroom is the part we know and love to eat- essentially the body of the organism. There are the spores or seeds, which are found under the mushroom cap and facilitate reproduction for the organism. Then, there is mycelium. Mycelium is the root system of the organism. It is made up of masses of tissues called hyphae that look like roots or cob-webs. (mycelium is the creepy crawly vines that come out of the infected/zombie’s mouths and grow in the ground in the Last of Us).
What does mycelium do?
Mycelium spreads over whatever the fungus is growing on like wood, soil, compost, waste etc., and extracts nutrients in order to grow a mushroom. In nature, this process is essential to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The fungi takes the nutrients it needs from whatever decaying matter it is growing on, and recycles the rest back into the soil as beneficial compounds. Mycelium can do this through vast root systems across the forest floor. Along the way, the fungi feeds trees and other plants and maintains forest health.
When hardened, mycelium turns into a tough, water and fire resistant material. This material can even be molded into shapes like bricks, boxes, lampshades, and furniture. In fact mycelium molds are already utilized by companies like Ikea, which has already committed to using the fungi material as packaging. Mycelium can be made into a lot of other things too like vegan leather, beauty products, vegan meats, and more.
Mycelium Mushroom Building materials
One of the most promising uses of mycelium is for construction materials. Some structures have been made out of mycelium already, but they have been limited to art installations (like this one) or other temporary structures. This is mainly because although mycelium bricks are stronger than concrete relative to their weight, they still have significantly less compressive strength. This means that they are much less reliable as a weight bearing material– which construction projects require. Additionally, the water resistance of mycelium bricks tends to break down over time. In optimal conditions, mycelium bricks can last for some 20 years, however, they can break down in as little as six weeks in poor conditions. Mycelium building materials are still in development and they have a long way to go– but the benefits of this emerging material are immense.
The power of mycelium
Mycelium isn’t just beneficial to the forest. This fast-growing, 100% biodegradable fungi has the unique ability to break down waste, filter out contaminants in water, convert heavy metals into less dangerous compounds, and eliminate non-degradable materials like plastics, unrefined oil and even nuclear waste. This process is known as mycoremediation.
Mycoremediation could be a solution to reducing construction waste
Not only can mycelium materials be biodegraded back into the soil, they can also literally be made from construction waste. Mycelium molded objects can be made from food waste like coffee grounds and corn husks, but it can also be made from construction waste like saw dust. So, this fungi can simultaneously get rid of construction waste and turn it into a usable material. Additionally, not only is the process of creating mycelium bricks carbon neutral, it is carbon negative. This means that it is completely regenerative and actually sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Interest in mycelium materials is growing
The enormous benefits of mycelium materials hasn’t gone unnoticed. Today, there are many companies working to create usable mycelium materials. San Francisco based company MycoWorks is already making mycelium products like clothing and bowls and has even partnered with Hermès. New York based company evocative is producing mycelium products including packaging, foam, beauty products, and vegan meats. With more time and research, mycelium materials could also become viable construction materials. Given the dire need to go carbon neutral, building with carbon sequestering materials like mycelium wouldn’t just be innovative, it could literally save the planet.
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