Industrial-Strength Fungus

Densely packed rootlike fibers can do the job of Styrofoam, insulation and, yes, even bricks

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Philip Ross

Fibers form a sturdy network called a mycelium.

At an organic farm just outside Monterey, Calif., a super-eco building material is growing in dozens of darkened shipping containers. The farm is named Far West Fungi, and its rusting containers are full of all sorts of mushrooms--shiitake, reishi and pom-pom, to name a few. But Philip Ross, an artist, an inventor and a seriously obsessed amateur mycologist, isn't interested in the fancy caps we like to eat. What he's after are the fungi's thin, white rootlike fibers. Underground, they form a vast network called a mycelium. Far West Fungi's dirt-free hothouses pack in each mycelium so densely that it forms a mass of bright white spongy matter.

Mycelium doesn't taste very good, but once it's dried, it has some remarkable properties. It's nontoxic, fireproof and mold- and water-resistant, and it traps more heat than fiberglass insulation. It's also stronger, pound for pound, than concrete. In December, Ross completed what is believed to be the first structure made entirely of mushroom. (Sorry, the homes in the fictional Smurf village don't count.) The 500 bricks he grew at Far West Fungi were so sturdy that he destroyed many a metal file and saw blade in shaping the 'shrooms into an archway 6 ft. (1.8 m) high and 6 ft. wide. Dubbed Mycotectural Alpha, it is currently on display at a gallery in Germany.

Nutty as "mycotecture" sounds, Ross may be onto something bigger than an art project. A promising start-up named Ecovative is building a 10,000-sq.-ft. (about 930 sq m) myco-factory in Green Island, N.Y. "We see this as a whole new material, a woodlike equivalent to plastic," says CEO Eben Bayer. The three-year-old company has been awarded grants from the EPA and the National Science Foundation, as well as the Department of Agriculture--because its mushrooms feast on empty seed husks from rice or cotton. "You can't even feed it to animals," says Bayer of this kind of agricultural waste. "It's basically trash."

After the husks are cooked, sprayed with water and myco-vitamins and seeded with mushroom spores, the mixture is poured into a mold of the desired shape and left to grow in a dark warehouse. A week or two later, the finished product is popped out and the material rendered biologically inert. The company's first product, a green alternative to Styrofoam, is taking on the packaging industry. Called Ecocradle, it is set to be shipped around a yet-to-be-disclosed consumer item this spring.

One of the beauties of Ecocradle is that unlike Styrofoam--which is hard to recycle, let alone biodegrade--this myco-material can easily serve as mulch in your garden. Ecovative's next product, Greensulate, will begin targeting the home-insulation market sometime next year. And according to Bayer's engineering tests, densely packed mycelium is strong enough to be used in place of wooden beams. "It's not so far-out," he says of Ross's art house. So could Bayer see himself growing a mushroom house and living in it? "Well"--he hesitates--"maybe we'd start with a doghouse."