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Sustainability, innovation, and product design with fungi

The search for new, innovative, and sustainable materials is becoming increasingly imminent. One focus of development is on fungi, in particular mycelium. However, we must make every effort, as we are in a race against time to achieve the objectives proposed in the United Nations "2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development".


Although the complexity of these objectives is remarkable, it is everyone's responsibility to meet them. We, as designers, do not like to stand idly by. On the contrary, we remain alert to the concerns that arise in the new paradigm and we research, devise and develop solutions to emerging problems.


In the quest to progress towards a transition based on a circular, low-carbon and resource-efficient economy, mycelium is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and versatile biomaterials, thanks to its excellent industrial properties. These properties define mycelium as a "multidisciplinary" material thanks to which a wide range of product typologies can be generated.

 

What is mycelium?


However, what is mycelium? You may have heard of mycelium before, or you may not have heard of it at all. In any case, the mycelium is the vegetative part of fungi. Fungi are divided into two parts: the vegetative part, which is not visible and is responsible for feeding, and the visible part, called the mushroom, which is responsible for reproduction.


The mycelium, on the other hand, consists of a network of filaments, called hyphae, which extend underground and in a unidirectional way, until they form a network that to the human eye looks like "cotton wool".





How does mycelium feed? Growing mycelium process


The mycelium is a living thing that needs to feed, and it does so on organic matter generated by other living things, be it cereal grains such as barley, rye, or rice, or other organic remains such as sawdust and wood particles. This food is known as substrate. At this point, it is interesting to note its function. Once the fungus comes into contact with the food, it reproduces and spreads along the food, generating new hyphae and, therefore, new networks until it completely colonizes the substrate. This network has a great binding capacity and, from an industrial point of view, could be interpreted as a binder.


In this way, the mycelium can be understood as a composite material. On the one hand, the matrix is identified as the mycelium itself, and on the other hand, there are reinforcements, of various kinds, but consisting of the mushroom's own substrate, commonly sawdust, and wood particles. This is where the most interesting part takes place. If the mycelium is fed properly and is made to grow in a certain volume and under certain conditions, the prelude to a biomaterial suitable for product design can be achieved.


The final step is to dry it at a certain temperature and time, as it is essential to kill the fungus in order to obtain an inert and functional product. Otherwise, the material would still be alive and would lack the industrial properties necessary for its use.



Proceso de introducción de un cultivo de micelio en molde para hacer crecer el producto final
Mycelium introduction process in moulds. Sebastian Cox and Ninela Ivanova
 

Mycelium properties


Finally, lightweight and inert material is obtained, with excellent mechanical and structural properties, as well as high impact resistance and dimensional stability under tensile stress. It has flame retardant and acoustic insulation properties, as well as resistance to UV radiation. Moreover, it is a totally organic product and therefore biodegradable.





Proceso de biodegradación del micelio.
Mycelium biodegradation. Ecovative
 

Mycelium applications to product design


In addition to the aforementioned properties, it should also be taken into account that the material is highly workable, which allows it to be processed with a variety of different techniques so that the range of products and applications that can be achieved is unimaginable.


Apparently, it is not easy to conceive the cavity that this could have in the industrial world, however, there are already several designers and architects who have researched and worked with the biomaterial and have developed, successfully, innovative projects.



Packaging design with mycelium


Due to its lightweight properties, impact resistance, and dimensional stability, the material is an excellent candidate for packaging development.





Furniture and interior design with mycelium


On the other hand, with its flame retardant and acoustic insulation properties, in addition to its structural properties, it has been used in interior design projects, as soundproofing panels, walls, and floors, and even in furniture design for seating and lighting.


Furniture design



Interior design




Architecture design with mycelium


Together with the above-mentioned properties, and taking into account its high resistance to UV radiation, mycelium is a great candidate for architectural projects, and several projects have already been carried out in this field.


Clothing materials innovation. The "vegan leather"


However, the applications go beyond that. If we talk about fashion, this material has a lot to contribute and has become an excellent alternative option to leather, known as "vegan leather" and implemented in fashion design, specifically in the manufacture of pieces of clothing, footwear, and even backpacks, however, its implementation is scalable to any product that can be developed from this innovative "biotextile".


 

Conclusions


If there is one thing that is clear, it is the great potential offered by this novel material, as well as the wide range of possibilities that the world of biomaterials and bioplastics, in general, opens up.


The 2030 agenda for sustainable development


For its part, the mycelium is a small step towards a much more sustainable path as desired in "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development". This consists of an action plan based on setting a set of goals for sustainable development at the global level. Some of these include the following:


  • The transition towards a low-carbon, circular, and resource-efficient economy.

  • The transition towards an inclusive society and economy is based on decent work and advocating for human rights.

  • The transition towards sustainable food production and consumption.

  • To increase investment in innovation, modernization of infrastructure, and promotion of sustainable enterprises.

  • Establishing trade that drives global sustainable development.

On the other hand, despite the variety of projects that have been carried out, research and development with mycelium remains in its early stages and there is much room for improvement. Current and future research, together with the role of designers, will be essential to determine its capabilities to the maximum, as well as its scalability and implementation in everyday industry. An industry that is surely more sustainable, efficient, circular, and environmentally friendly.






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