It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a New York–based biomaterials company hopes to create a new category of environmentally friendly building materials by growing them from scratch.
While growing up on a farm in Vermont, Eben Bayer, the company’s co-founder and CEO, noticed something about the wood chips he was shovelling into a gasifier machine used for making maple syrup. The chips were often stuck together by small white strands. Curious about the glue-like substance, Bayer did some research and discovered that the strands were mycelium, the early growth stage of mushrooms. Nature had created its own adhesive.
Later, as a student at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Bayer and his classmate Gavin McIntyre wondered if mycelium could be used to make materials that would act as replacements for environmentally harmful synthetics such as plastic. In 2007, they formed a company called Ecovative (“eco” plus “innovative”) that uses mycelium to create organic packaging and construction materials that are surprisingly sturdy yet ultimately biodegradable. For the packaging materials, the manufacturing process involves combining the early-stage mushrooms with agricultural waste, such as corn stalks, and placing the mixture into moulds of various shapes and sizes that are left in a dark space for a couple of days. As the mycelium grows, it solidifies into a mass, becoming one of Ecovative’s patented Mushroom Packaging products, which can replace most types of plastic foam and are currently used by customers to package everything from electronics to furniture.
While the company’s packaging is already commercially available, its most remarkable application for mycelium is just about to debut. Ecovative is teaming up with New York’s Museum of Modern Art to grow mycelium bricks and create an outdoor structure for MoMA’s PS1 event space in Long Island City. The three-pronged tower, designed by New York firm The Living, will act as a source of shade throughout the summer. In a press release, MoMA says the tower will require almost no energy or carbon emissions during the creation process—“a building that grows out of nothing but earth and returns to nothing but earth.”
Company spokesman Sam Harrington says Ecovative is developing a variety of building materials in its lab, including “MycoBoard,” a branded replacement for engineered wood, and an insulation product called Myco Fiber that will see wide release in 2015. Although many of the company’s products have yet to go on the market, Ecovative has already raised $14 million in equity financing, including an investment from 3M.