Small Company, Huge Challenge, Successful Innovation

Creating a biodegradable replacement for synthetic insulation and plastic packaging with mushrooms.

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This podcast is part of the Sustainable Design radio program, a collaboration between IEEE Spectrum and the National Science Foundation.

Susan Hassler: Our next story takes us to Green Island, New York, just north of Albany, where a very small company is taking on a very big sustainability challenge…and winning. Ecovative Design, a company of largely twentysomethings, has designed a biodegradable replacement for synthetic insulation and plastic packaging, like Styrofoam. Even more interesting is what this packaging is made of: mushrooms! Laurie Howell has the story on the innovative engineering team behind this new invention.

Eben Bayer: The first year was really challenging.

Laurie Howell: It was 2007. Twenty-one-year-old Eben Bayer was fresh out of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Eben Bayer: So, you know, for every 100 experiments we did, we might get one or two positive results.

Eben Bayer: So you were really going on your vision in the beginning of what can this really be and what can it really do, not necessarily what‘s in front of you.

Laurie Howell: Now, three years later, I’m about to get a tour of the Ecovative Design pilot plant.

[click of the door]

Laurie Howell: Now, where are we going?
 
Eben Bayer: We’re going onto the production floor.

Laurie Howell: This is the warehouse where they create their products: packaging material called EcoCradle for things like electronics and furniture and insulation, called greensulate. Did I say create? Maybe I should say grow their products. You see…they start with agricultural cast-offs, useless stuff like seed husks and cottonseed hulls…things that otherwise are headed for the dump. They pack this garbage together tight into molds, different shapes and sizes, and inject it with Mother Nature’s glue: mushroom roots. When the mushroom roots grow, the fungus bonds the waste together. And voilà: totally biodegradable material for insulation and packaging…as I’m about to see.

Sam Harrington:
Let me just cover this up.
 
Laurie Howell: Sure, what is that? It looks like a big tray of white goo.

Laurie Howell: Just inside the entrance of the warehouse, I meet the company’s environmental director, Sam Harrington, as he’s examining a big tray of product.

Sam Harrington: [laughs] Yup, this is a large panel that we grew, so this could be a greensulate insulation panel, but what I’m actually doing is cutting it for parts for...this is going to be packaging for servers. The really neat thing about this is while it’s still growing—this is alive right now—which is why I’m covering it, so...

Laurie Howell: The mushroom fungus has grown a lot—it’s almost white now.

Sam Harrington: Yup, exactly, but the cool thing is, I can cut this while it’s growing and it will self-heal in a couple of days.

Sam Harrington: And what’s even cooler than that is, I can stack multiple 2-D parts that I cut out of this, and if they are in intimate contact, they’ll grow together, so the mycelium will literally bond it together with a bond that’s stronger than glue.

Laurie Howell: This is engineering based on natural systems…the natural bonding nature of mycelium, or mushroom roots.

Eben Bayer: What I want to talk you through here is the whole rest of the production system.

Laurie Howell: Company cofounder Eben Bayer shows me around the rest of the warehouse.

Eben Bayer: This hopper contains the seed husks, your agricultural byproduct we use in our process. We basically use things that can’t be fed to animals or humans. This hopper just holds them for use during our process, and it holds about a day’s worth of materials.

Laurie Howell: Where do you get the materials from?

Eben Bayer: We’ve developed regional feedstocks for anywhere in the United States, really anywhere in the world. So, in New York state, we use an oat hull product. If we were in Texas, we’d use a cottonseed hull product. In Arkansas, we could use rice husks. Same in China or India.

Laurie Howell: And do you have to actually buy that, or do they just say, uh, “Take it away”?

Eben Bayer: We typically pay shipping. So these are real waste products. There’s a lot of them and, unlike other protected packaging which uses starch or sugar, we’re not taking food away from humans.

Laurie Howell: But the testing and innovation continues because while mushrooms and seed husks are quite common, EcoCradle and greensulate are not.

Ed Browka: It’s not like we’re doing injection molding of Styrofoam, so the process itself is a whole new game we’re playing...so...developing how the parts fit together, the tolerances...

Ed Browka: ...and even how we shape the parts, is sometimes a little different.
 
Ed Browka: So there’s some interesting challenges to make it work.

Laurie Howell: Ed Browka is chief engineer and, at 31, one of the oldest employees.

Ed Browka: When I started working for the company, we had a KitchenAid mixer as our primary method of producing material, and Eben was like, “Okay, we can do a 5-cup batch at a time. How are we going to make 5000 cubic feet? Um...”

Ed Browka: So this whole continuous process of producing mushroom substrate is really a first of its kind that we developed here by kind of taking technology from food and medical, and...you know...and...

Ed Browka: ...put it all together.

Laurie Howell: Reducing their environmental footprint along the way. Yes, their product is entirely natural and biodegrades in 45 days. But they would also like to cut down on the energy they use to produce it. For example, they use energy to bake the product at the end to kill off the fungus and earlier to steam-pasteurize the waste. But they’re now experimenting with using essential plant oils to disinfect, which would cut their energy use by 50 percent. The idea is to work with Mother Nature, which is fitting because cofounders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntire say Mother Nature inspired the idea in the first place.

Gavin McIntire: It came from an observation that Eben made while hiking in the woods. He said, “Hey, this mycelium is really binding particles from the forest floor together, you know, wood chips. How can this be applied to an industrial application?”

Eben Bayer: So working with Gavin and working with my team, we took this insight about how you could use mycelium as a binding agent and then transformed it into products like our packaging, products like our insulation, and a robust process for growing materials.

Laurie Howell: Natural materials now used to package all types of Fortune 500 products.

Gavin McIntire: Everything from electronics components like keyboards and monitors, things of that nature, to furniture.

Eben Bayer: Though we only have one pilot facility now, the principles of operations are continuous, and they’re scalable. So there’s really no limit to what we can do as long as we find good market applications and have good technical performance.

Eben Bayer: Our vision was always, and continues to be, to really displace plastics anywhere they don’t make sense.

Eben Bayer: So, you know, we’re getting to the point where I think we can have wide-reaching impact.

Laurie Howell: In Green Island, New York, this is Laurie Howell.

This podcast is part of the Sustainable Design radio program, a collaboration between IEEE Spectrum and the National Science Foundation.

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