Here’s another reason to love a good mushroom: One day you might be able to make headphones, memory foam for shoes, or even airplane exoskeletons. Researchers have just assessed the technical capabilities of one particularly impressive mushroom and found that it could be able to replace plastic in a variety of different use cases.
Using mushrooms instead of plastic can reduce the heaps of waste people create. Plastics made from fossil fuels are actually very difficult to recycle and usually end up in messy landfills, landscapes and waterways. Materials made with mushrooms, on the other hand, are biodegradable and can be reused at the end of a product’s life to make more of the same stuff.
The fungus fomes fomosius is the focus of new research published today in the journal Scientific progress. It has the remarkable ability to produce a wide variety of materials with different properties – from soft and spongy to tough and woody. By studying the architecture of the mushroom, researchers hope to pave the way for a more sustainable building block of our lives.
“When something beautiful starts to form, nature just doesn’t do it because it’s so beautiful – there has to be a function there”
“We were really amazed by the structure, because if you’re a biologist you immediately notice that when something beautiful starts to form, nature just doesn’t do it because of how beautiful it is – there has to be a function there,” says Pezhman Mohammadi, one of the authors of the new paper and a senior scientist at the VTT Technical Research Center in Finland.
In the wild, F. Fomentarius could look like a horse’s hoof growing out of a tree trunk. People have been using it as tinder to make fire for thousands of years. This is how it got the nicknames hoof fungus and tinder fungus. In the future, it could also be used to create a new class of ultra-lightweight performance materials, the new research shows.
The unique thing about this fungus is that it has three layers with different properties that can each be useful in different ways. There is a very tough outer crust that can be used to make an impact resistant coating for windshields, for example. Then, according to Mohammadi, there is a soft middle layer that feels good on the skin and can mimic leather. The third inner layer is similar to wood. The research team used advanced imaging techniques and mechanical strength testing to study each layer and assess their potential applications.
There is already a growing interest in mushroom-based building materials, packaging and textiles. And Mohammadi and his team have already prototyped headphones using the thread-like structure called mycelium that makes up a fungus.
Of course, there is still a long way to go before mushrooms can replace plastic. You cannot get them from forests, because that would cause too much damage to the ecosystem. The mycelium would have to be mass produced for the market. In addition, you may want to modify the genome of the fungus to emphasize certain traits. And more research and testing needs to be done to ensure that the resulting materials strike just the right balance between being both biodegradable and biodegradable. And durable enough for consumers.
The hope is that mushroom-based products break down once they are no longer useful, rather than stick around indefinitely like many plastic pollutions. As waste, products made with molds can even become food for new mycelium production, creating a closed production process. That’s pretty much the gold standard for making any consumer product at least a little bit more sustainable.