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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Foam Peanuts Replaced By (Real) Mushrooms

Foam peanuts. (HidingInABunker/Flickr)

Foam peanuts. (HidingInABunker/Flickr)

What if you could replace styrofoam with something that biodegrades and doesn’t contain petroleum?

That’s what the founders of Ecovative Design are trying to do — with mushrooms.

Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief science officer of the upstate New York start-up, says realizing the versatility and strength of mushrooms came to him and his co-founder, Eben Bayer, while they were undergraduates at Rensselaer Polytechnic College.

“We truly believe we have a revolutionary technology here, leveraging nature to replace synthetic plastics and foams.”

– Gavin McIntyre

Bayer comes from a family of maple farmers, and he noticed that the tissue of mushrooms grew on and bound together woodchips.

The question became, “How could we translate this natural process, this adhesion that occurs in nature, into an industrial setting, and turn this natural tissue into a living glue?” McIntyre told Here & Now.

Ecovative Design uses mycelium — which McIntyre describes as the “supporting structure of all fungi” — as its primary building material.

“The mycelium differentiates and forms mushrooms or the vegetative root type structure that grows on lawns or in trees, for example,” McIntyre explained. “Based on the temperature, or the CO2 levels, even light, the mushroom will form or it will just generate more of that vegetative mycelium.”

Mushroom-based packaging by Ecovative Design. (ecovativedesign.com)

Mushroom-based packaging by Ecovative Design. (ecovativedesign.com)

The company uses this mycelium network, combined with agricultural waste products such as corn stalks, to produce specific shapes for their packing materials. The process doesn’t use any external energy, and the resulting product is completely biodegradable.

“It’s really a set and forget process,” McIntyre said. The company has created products in a variety of shapes and sizes, from “customized and complex geometries for protective packaging” to “panels for the construction industry.

“And today, we’re even growing a house,” McIntyre added.

McIntyre is confident that Ecovative Design will prove to be the green version of Dow Chemical or DuPont.

“We truly believe we have a revolutionary technology here, leveraging nature to replace synthetic plastics and foams,” McIntyre said. “There isn’t a single day that goes by that there isn’t someone on our team that is developing a new piece of technology, a new material, or a new market that I’m not awestruck by.”

Gavin McIntyre’s 2012 TEDx Talk:

Guest

  • Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief science officer at Ecovative Design.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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