Mycelium insulation – turning waste into a resource
Biohm is a bio-manufacturing startup firm, based in the United Kingdom, that draws on nature for inspiration and innovation. Its Engagement Lead, Evie Faure, tells us how they use mycelium (the vegetative filament root structure of mushrooms) and organic substrates that are the by-products or wastes of other industries to make clean and effective insulation panels.
How did the idea of using mycelium as insulation start? What inspired you first?
Evie Faure: Our founder, Ehab Sayed, started the company six years ago. He designed a nature-inspired construction system called Triagomy. Quite quickly, he found that there were not many options in the market for sustainable materials that he could use for it. It led him to put R&D challenges at the heart of Biohm's activities. Since then, the company has focused on developing sustainable and regenerative materials for the construction industry.
We use two different technologies: one of them being mycelium and the other one being orb technology. (*orb is a material made from waste by-products from the food production or agricultural sectors. The waste is processed into a homogenous filler which is bound together with Biohm´s unique and completely organic binder to form an affordable and sustainable replacement for wood -based sheet materials).
What makes mycelium insulation stand out in the market? Which are its main properties?
EF: Mycelium is the root structure of a fungus. The fruit body is the mushroom, the one we eat. Mycelium is the tiny network filament that lives beneath the soil and is the part we don´t commonly see. We use its ability to grow on agricultural waste like hemp stalks in a mold. As it grows, it forms small air pockets in and around waste, which provides its thermal insulating properties. It also has amazing self-wicking features: it is a very breathable material. In terms of humidity, mycelium easily absorbs and releases it. The skinning properties are also worth noting: the mycelium grows through the waste and then forms a skin over the top, which are quite aesthetically pleasing.
The main benefit of this material, especially compared to market alternatives, is that it is 100% biobased and naturally biodegradable. Moreover, our insulation panels are remanufacturable at the end of life. Since mycelium has the ability to consume itself, we take the panels back and re-integrate them into our manufacturing process
Can you tell us more about the company's circular production process?
EF: We use agricultural waste, mostly the stalks from the hemp plant, that would otherwise rot away in the field and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We collect that waste and trap it inside our mycelium panels. In that way, it becomes a carbon-negative material that stores carbon. There are two right scenarios for its end of life: it can biodegrade and return its carbon to the biosphere or be remanufactured by us. The process is a closed loop.
How do you avoid the overgrowth or lifelong growth of the mycelium?
EF: We grow the mycelium in very controlled conditions. We assimilate them to those it would have in the ground to ensure rapid growth. And after about a two-week growing process, the mycelium panels go under an “ethical killing process” and become a completely inert material. It is not alive anymore when it gets to our homes.
Does it need any additives to prevent mold or increase fire resistance?
EF: It has really interesting properties. Mycelium skin is a natural organism that includes some fire-resistant and some bio-resistant properties. We are constantly looking at taking inspiration from nature to improve them. We don't add any toxic or chemical additives to the materials. They are still 100% biobased.
As your production is a natural process how can you control the quality and durability of the final product?
EF: We have an amazing team of mycologists and engineers, biotechnologists and chemists who have been working on the development of this material for a long time now. The production technology is pretty much standardized today. Currently, we are going through an accreditation process with BBA (British Board of Agriculture) to obtain a certification that proves it.
How long does the material last as an insulation product?
EF: We would say it lasts as any other insulation material, as long as it is used in the right way. We suggest using it inside cavities, and we wouldn't recommend using it outside. As a biodegradable material, it can begin to break down if exposed to the elements.
Are there any restrictions on the use of mycelium panels in a building?
EF: It depends. The first product that we are commercializing is a 1.2 by 2.4 m board with 75 mm thickness. It is suitable as a wall cavity insulation. But it can be worked quite easily and cut. Depending on where it needs to be, it can be adapted. We are also going to work on different versions of panels to be able to access more insulation applications and try to replace harmful materials currently used.
What about the costs: is it an affordable material, or has the possibility of becoming affordable in the near future?
EF: We are all working to make this product more competitive with other market alternatives. We want people to be able to make their decision based on the ecological impact of the insulation material, not its price . It might be a bit more expensive at first, but once we scale up and start producing in a vertically farming process, the price will be able to come right down and match other market alternatives.
When will the insulation panel be launched for commercialization?
EF: We are hoping to launch the insulation panel around mid-next year. Once we have the BBA accreditation.
You are also developing studies on using plastic as a resource for your products. Is it already a reality or still under development?
EF: We want our materials to be 100% biobased. That is why we will never use plastic as a substrate of any material, because if they end up in nature, then the plastic will do so too. However, we work with mycelium differently. We use its ability to degrade, decompose and detoxify some synthetic waste. It is something we call mycoremediation. Some of our fungi have evolved the ability to consume synthetic waste streams. For the time being, we have been examining this feature for PPE waste and other plastic waste streams.
Your design process seems to be different from most design companies. You are more focused on developing new materials. Can you tell me a bit about this design process?
EF: It is a nature-inspired, but also a very material-led design process. We let our materials lead the applications. For example, we developed lampshades out of our orb technology using orange peel and coffee waste. The forces of gravity act on the material, creating shapes. That feature was our guide to designing the material's application. That is why we launched it as a lampshade. It is a collaboration between the designer and the actual material itself.
What are the main innovative products for the construction sector that you have recently developed or currently working on?
EF: The insulation panels are the main innovation we are trying to tackle because insulation is one of the most harmful components in the construction industry. But we are also developing acoustic panels made of mycelium, because of the soundproofing properties of the material. Besides, we are elaborating on our orb material, which stands for “organic refuse biocompound” and working on a construction board to replace MDF.
Author: Danielle Khoury Gregorio
* Article originally published on the website bambouimmobilier.com