How Mushrooms Can Grow — and Green — Your Product Development

What creators should know about mycelium, the adaptable, biodegradable, microorganism-grown foam that can stand in for everything from prototyping to packaging material.

Grow—and compost—mycelium for product design and packaging with a lighter ecological footprint.

This is a guest post by Grant Goldner, commissioned by Kickstarter Magazine.

We are on the cusp of a new manufacturing revolution that embraces biology. It’s called biofabrication. We no longer need to grow an entire animal or mine a large amount of land to source a comparatively small amount of material. Instead, we can use basic inputs like water and sugar to get complex outputs from microorganisms. Bacteria can make concrete and pigments, yeast can make silk, and mushrooms can make leather. With very little energy input, we can now create biodegradable materials whose performance rivals most synthetic ones.

Kickstarter projects like Dinopet by BioPop, GROW lamp by Danielle Trofe, and the Mylo Driver Bag by Bolt Projects are already harnessing the power of the microorganism mycelium, the roots of mushrooms, for product development. Here’s why you should consider doing it — and how.

GROW, launched on Kickstarter, is a lamp made of mycelium.

More about mycelium, and a few top applications for it.

Mycelium material is produced when the organism is grown on agricultural waste, like wood chips, in a mold that forms it into the desired shape. Mycelium material is velvety, soft, and handles like a medium-weight, dense foam. Creators have used it to make packaging, furniture, lighting, beverage coolers, speaker enclosures, temporary buoys, drone bodies, architectural structures, and more.

Mycelium material is great for:

  • Flame resistance
  • Compressive strength
  • Buoyancy
  • Sound insulation
  • Heat insulation
  • Water resistance
  • Compostability

Avoid using mycelium material in a situation where it will be bent or flexed, as it can snap easily. The material’s surface can dent and should be protected from being kicked and scratched. Lastly, avoid uses that are exposed to routine contact with water; it’s water-resistant, but not waterproof.

How to make it — and scale it up.

You can prototype your mycelium ideas easily by following this video tutorial. With basic inputs like water and flour, you can activate the mycelium material, grow it in a mold, and pop out a sustainably grown part in four days. All you need is a table and an oven.

Mycelium material can be used in all phases of the production cycle. You can easily prototype one to 50 parts per month at home, develop a dedicated space for growing 100 or more parts per month, or hire Ecovative, a company where I used to work, to mass-produce parts of 500 or more.

A dedicated mycelium workspace for preparing and filling molds should have:

  • Shelving, to store multiple parts while growing
  • An oven large enough to dry many parts at once (sometimes bakeries are willing to rent out their ovens)
  • Seamless flooring and open space that you can easily sweep up — the process can get dusty
  • A large table made of a water-resistant material
  • Refrigeration, to store unused mycelium material

Mycelium is DIY-friendly, but there’s help if you need it.

You can order pregrown mycelium material that’s ready to be molded into your desired shape from Ecovative Design, or you can grow mycelium on your own substrate to incorporate a waste stream, like leftover grains from a brewery, in your product. Growing your own mycelium material is also useful in instances where transporting large amounts of building materials is difficult — like missions to Mars.

True sustainability considers the end of your product’s life, too.

Choosing a sustainable material like mycelium does not make your product sustainable — you also need to consider the end of your product’s life. Mycelium material will last indefinitely indoors and will biodegrade under specific outdoor conditions. When your users are ready to retire your product, make sure the mycelium elements can be separated from any non-biodegradable parts of your product — otherwise it will still end up in a landfill.

The objects we make impact the health of our planet, and we have the opportunity to redesign everything to make that impact positive. Mycelium material has begun to take root in Kickstarter projects, and it may also be a good application for your latest sustainable creation.

About the author

Grant Goldner is a sustainable design strategist who believes we can act as Earth’s stewards by redesigning our materials and physical products to attain a triple bottom line: environmental, social, and economic. If your brand is eager to develop a product that promotes sustainable change, please reach out at grant.puregoldner@gmail.com.