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Insights into Mycelium

Insights into Mycelium

INTERVIEW WITH MAURIZIO MONTALTI

In order to substantiate our research on mycelium technology and the insulating properties of fungi, we talked with Maurizio Montalti – one of the theoretical mentors of the following Summer School – founder of Officina Corpuscoli and co-founder of Mogu, two initiatives that contribute significantly to the advance of the field. His knowledge and experience on design processes that embrace the collaboration with living organisms, gave us the chance to clarify a lot of issues concerning the specific requirements needed to grow mycelium materials, as well as to identify their practical benefits and constraints.

  • Can you describe your work vision at Mogu and Officina Corpuscoli?

Just to make the distinction between the two entities, Officina Corpuscoli is the design studio which I founded in Amsterdam and where we initiated this practice almost 10 years ago; later on, a good part of the work that we developed in regard to mycelium was transferred to Mogu. Officina Corpuscoli works by means of a rather experimental approach towards the identification of novel materials and processes, situated at the intersection between science and design. In terms of the work developed with mycelium, what we are mostly concerned with is to explore the possibility of growing materials, making use of different waste and by-products of other industries and value-chains, and valorising them through the digestion by means of fungal organisms. In time, we have been elaborating and discovering different methods, technics, conditions and strains that we could employ to create specific materials with specific properties.

With this knowledge, in 2015, together with partners, we decided to start another initiative called Mogu, an independent company and industrial venture, dedicating itself to scaling up and standardizing a range of mycelium based materials and products. What we basically do is grow materials and products, trying to tackle the severe impact that traditional compounds already existing on the market – such as synthetic compounds and plastics – create in the ecosystem. We do so by introducing natural alternatives, by matching the performative aspect of traditional materials with the one of our materials.

  • Why did you decide to work with mycelium and natural systems in your design projects? When did it start and how?

It was in 2009 when i was still studying for my masters degree at Design Academy of Eindhoven. I have always been very sensitive to the environmental cause and committed to the relationship I have with the ecosystem. As a designer, I have worked a lot with materials that are problematic by definition, such as synthetic materials that most products are made of. I didn’t want to take responsibility for introducing almost immortal materials, by embedding them in products, that I was aware could have very severe consequences.

Therefore, I started defining my alternative role as a designer, trying to identify alternative solutions by designing for degradation and decay. That is where I stumbled upon fungi and where my research path in such direction started. I was looking for ways to get rid of stuff and observing the way in which things happen in the ecosystem. In nature, the main actors responsible for undergoing cycles of degradation and decomposition of all organic and inorganic substrates are fungi. For this reason, I started investigating more in depth their role in nature and seaking collaborations to allow me to develop my visionary perspectives and turn them into tangible projects. My focus at the beginning was on degrading organic and inorganic materials – including plastics – but while going through this process I kept observing the continuous generation of wet biological material. That is what opened up the roads to what I am actively engaged to these days, meaning the idea of utilising growth processes of fungi for the generation of specific alternative materials. It was not exactly a decision. I was investigating something quite different and I stumbled upon an opportunity which I decided to cultivate, quite literally.

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using mycelium as a building material?

Every material has a different set of potentials. It has been said quite wrongly in the past that mycelium materials can replace every synthetic polymer. In reality, you can do a lot of things with mycelium but not yet everything. Possibly, the more we’ll keep evolving and learning about such practice, the more will be the range of opportunities. When you work with a material that results from a process that is so radically different from traditional production processes, you have to observe, study, reflect and understand the limitations and the opportunities. For example, technics like injection molding, used for the production of plastic, can not be easily used with mycelium materials. The requirements and the conditions of their consolidation are completely different because they are a result of a living process.

When it comes to the building industry, one of the biggest advantages of this material is the low amount of energy and resources that you need to make it, first of all, come to life. Moreover, you can achieve very sturdy, solid building blocks from a mechanical point of view, especially in terms of compressive strength. However, the fungal strain as well as the fiber length and orientation, the environmental conditions, the post-treatments etc., play a major role in determining the properties of the final material.

On the other hand, we have always to keep in mind that mycelium materials are natural materials and therefore are perishable and temporary, they are subjected to decay and to degradation. Of course, the durability and performance of the material in regards to certain aspects can be adjusted by making some compromises that are not always ideal. In such case, one may have to introduce materials that are not natural – or not fully natural – so to provide certain properties that are not embedded in the mycelium itself. This is partly a need for current industrial and market requirements, though could also be seen as a cultural disadvantage, in the sense that we believe that things should last forever whereas these materials suggest that things should be temporary, as everything that exists is temporary.

  • How does the type of mycelium relates to the properties of the produced material? How do you choose a strain instead of another for one type of object? In our case, trying to find the right type of mycelium for thermal insulation, what kind of mycelium or mushroom quality should we look for?

There are inherent properties that each fungal strain can provide to a final material. In theory, any white-rot fungus could potentially work as an insulation agent. Some genetic qualities of some strains are though more suitable because of the very structure that the mycelium creates. The point is that when you work on a composite material such as the mix of fungal mycelium and an agricultural substrate,  both the components contribute to the quality and performance of the final material. It is difficult to say that there is one single direction in order to create the best insulation material. What is certain, is that you will need the material to satisfy parameters such as specific values related to thermal conductivity, light-weight qualities and cost effectiveness.

When reflecting on the activities that we’ll conduct as part of the Summer School, it is good to consider that generally, in a non specialised environment, it is a good idea to work with the simplest process, meaning to work with a performative, competitive fungal strain, such as the classic Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster Mushroom). On the contrary, in a more specialised environment, a good option could be for instance, Trametes versicolor, a fungus that creates a thick “skin” on top of the material. Therefore, during our activities, we’ll be able to make use of Pleurotus and to start the overall colonisation process from the very start (from raw materials – e.g. straw), whereas for Trametes – being in a non specialised environment – we’ll better work with pre-incubated materials that will be utilised to create panels of any geometry, depending on our plans, overall objectives and tools.

  • We found some people working with horse hoof fungus or Fomes fomentarius. Would that be an interesting strain to use? Is it a strain that you have experience with?

I have been using many strains of Fomes fomentarius and even though it is a very good fungus, it also has certain issues. First of all, like Trametes, it is very difficult to work with in a non specialised environment. Secondly, it has a growth cycle that is particularly long compared to other fungi and therefore the longer the time the more likely the possibility of infection. Furthermore, in terms of aesthetics, certain Fomes strains have a “problem” related to pigmentation, without this being a negative aspect for its performance. At some point in the growing process it starts producing a sort of maculated, pattern with very dark spots on the surface. There are a lot of other fungal species and strains that one can work with, though experience and dedication are needed in order to identify the optimal conditions in which they can be grown into materials.

  • What would be the ideal environmental conditions for mycelium culture and then mycelium object development?

Conditions change depending on the strain and on the overall objective. Each strain has a preferred “diet” and a preferred set of growing conditions. However on average, it’s good to consider a range of temperature between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius, say 25. At 15 degrees the material is going to grow slower but possibly stronger, whereas at 35 it will grow faster but will be subjected to higher risk of infections from competing organisms. Growing temperature and substrate humidity are some of the environmental conditions that mostly contribute to the development of the final material, also affecting its mechanical properties. However, there is not a real rule. We can not bring everything down to one protocol because every single material has its own requirements and can be influenced by various parameters.

  • What would be the optimal type of mold to grow mycelium? Is aluminium or inox an option? May one mold be used multiple times provided that it will be properly cleaned?

Molds can be used many times as far as you work in clean conditions and you clean everything properly. Even though aluminium or inox could be an option, every person currently working with mycelium tends to use thermoform molds, usually made of PETG. This is mostly because it is cheaper than aluminium and easier to be cleaned and sealed. If a metal mold develops scratches, it might be difficult to properly clean it and will be therefore susceptible to bacteria and other fungi, possibly contributing to spoiling the culture. At the same time, plastic is much lighter than metal while using a transparent material allows you to witness what happens inside which is quite important if you want to follow the growth process. Using plastic also helps to maintain high humidity inside the mold. In a very DIY way – if aluminium or inox molds is what you already have – you can use some plastic kitchen foil to cover the mold. In this way, you basically create the conditions for the humidity to be kept constant and high. If you don’t have high humidity you will probably not have the right growth process.

  • On a more technical level, should a compressive pressure be applied to the panels? What is the volume loss that should be expected in this case?

It depends on what you want to achieve. One thing is to make a sturdy, very rigid brick and another is to have an insulating panel. The brick asks for a very compact structure and needs to withstand all kinds of stresses and forces. On the other hand, the insulating panel requires a low density material and therefore it doesn’t make any sense to compress it because you would end up affecting negatively its performance as an insulating agent. The volume loss depends on the compressive force you apply. For example, the materials we are working on for flooring, start from a height of mold of about 100 mm and come down to 8 mm, applying compression at different times of the process but particularly at the end. It is mostly the post-treatment that allows us to close all the gaps and to obtain a very dense material.

Mycelium objects from Officina Corpuscoli (source: http://www.corpuscoli.com/projects/the-growing-lab-objects/)
  • What are the ideal drying/curing conditions and time to be sure that all biological activity is terminated? How long does it take for a panel to be functional?

In theory, you don’t need to use any oven if you have some sort of solar oven. You can use the energy from the sun to cure the materials. In order to do that, you need to “bake” them at a temperature from 70 to 90 degrees. If the temperature goes higher you risk burning the material or changing its qualities. However, based on experience, I would suggest to always pre-dry the material and then proceed with the baking process. Pre-drying means exposing the material – letting it almost dry but not completely – in a room with high temperature, or outside in the sun. Finally, the cooking process will terminate all biological activity. The time needed depends on the volume. If you have a very thick material you need to make sure that heat penetrates to the core. Generally you can cook a 5 cm material for one hour to one hour and a half.

  • What are the basic sanitary requirements during the process?

In a non-specialised environment what is fundamentally needed is enough rubber gloves, alcohol, flat and clean working surfaces. It is better to work on plastic or stainless steel surfaces rather than on wood because wood can hardly be properly cleaned. It is very important to sanitize hands and surfaces in every step of the process. In a more open environment, it is better to work with pre-grown material which is already densely colonized by the mycelium and is therefore stronger and capable of resisting any form of potential competition from other living agents.

  • Is there a way to make the material weather-proof from the outside environment without destroying its compostability? Would natural oil penetration be a partial solution, like in the Hy-Fi tower by David Benjamin? Or  shellac, a solution applied by Phil Ross?

The finishing is one of the most important things in order for something that looks like a material to actually become a product. There are different kinds of oils that have been traditionally and effectively used for wood treatment in the inside or outside environment. For example, linseed oil is commonly used for the conservation of old wooden furniture. However, it can hardly be considered a permanent solution, as it needs to be maintained and reapplied every once in a while. Waxes can be an equally interesting solution but as in the case of oils, they need to be applied over and over again. Shellac on the other hand, is a great natural polymer but also a quite expensive material compared to other industrial solutions, particularly when thinking about scale and high production volumes. Moreover shellac, as well as linseed oil, changes the quality of the material as it creates a film on top that seals its pores. Therefore, if the point is to have a porous material that allows the wall to breath, shellac is not the correct option. These are all temporary solutions applicable for projects that are not meant to be in place for a long time.

For this reason, we are currently working with nanoparticles that can penetrate the pores and still keep the structure open. Nowadays we are trying to develop our own formulations in order to create coating systems that could maintain the feel, the look and the qualities of the original material, while enhancing its durability. For instance, one compound that I am currently testing is nanocellulose, which is completely natural and promises to be a great future coating system even though not yet developed as such.

  • How do you envision the development of mycelium based objects in the next 5 to 10 years? What would be its potential impact on the creative industry and the society in general?

In the next 5 to 10 years this material will certainly have found its way into the market. Although a lot of people are excited about mycelium-based objects, the fact is that nobody can buy them because there is not yet a market for them. This will happen in the moment that, in the same way that we commit to the practice, there will be more players animating a market. What we are trying to do nowadays, is to create the bases for this market and favor the introduction of a first set of products so that the consumers become acquainted with the related opportunities (and limitations). The impact on a social level can be very big in the moment in which those alternatives become commercially available. In order for this to happen, there is a lot to work on, not only in terms of finishing the product but particularly in properly evaluating and demonstrating its economical feasibility at scale. That is because if you have great materials but they cost a lot, not many people are going to take them on, hence the actual impact is rather limited.

It is important to consider that we are still in the “prehistory” of those materials and that, despite the fact that we have been doing and finding out a lot, there is still so much to be explored and validated. That is why the development of the next 5 to 10 years will be also affected by the amount of players that will decide to contribute to advance the field. You need a lot of players to create a fair market and we are certainly not considering any idea of monopoly. We want the market to be healthy and competitive, with each actor developing his own formulations and technologies and launching his own products.

Looking at the creative-industry, the impact can be big there too. It is important to try to provide especially designers and architects with solutions of semi-finished materials that could be utilised as responsible alternatives (non toxic compounds) to traditional, synthetic-based ones. In this way, not everybody will need to commit to the somehow complicated process of manufacturing and prototyping. In fact, a lot of people are excited by the idea of starting to grow their own materials from scratch, but as soon as they fail, they easily give up. However, it is paramount to embrace failure as a very important part of the process and as a fundamental passage towards learning, but not everybody appears to be patient enough to accept and recognise that.

  • How do you see the importance of knowledge dissemination, open-source licences, and collaborative practices to foster its expansion?

I think that those approaches and notions are fundamental to adopt within the framework of current technological innovation and developments. That is in fact where everything starts for me. Since I started working on this project as part of my studio activities, the main goal has always been to inform the wider public about the great opportunities deriving from a collaboration between humans and other living systems for the manufacturing of goods that can positively influence our material culture. Therefore, there is a lot of educational work to be performed here, starting from the very basics and letting the public understand that, first of all, most fungi are not dangerous. In fact, only a very minority of all fungal species can behave as human pathogens, whereas the majority can be of great advantage as part of our everyday societal activities. The fact that today you can gather a lot of knowledge from many sources – one for all the web – is quite incredible, particularly when comparing the current wealth of information to just ten years ago, when there was really not much available or easily accessible. This can also be seen as an already important factor contributing to inform a lot of individuals that want to work with such systems.

On the other hand, it is a big struggle to effectively introduce to the industry the concept of open source and the related potential models (e.g. creative commons). We still live in a system that values protection and even if I am inherently against it, in some ways I have to work with it, while trying to change it. When you invent and protect something, you can either do it because you want to control the invention and decide on who can use it or not – which for me is not necessarily the case – or you can utilise it as a tool to attract the investors, who tend to value such kind of exclusive assets (IP – Intellectual Property).

However, there is a very big set of misconceptions before coming to understand that open-source does not necessarily mean “for free”. If you spend a lot of resources and time on the development of a technology, you will also need some economical benefits from that, otherwise your whole initiative will not stand on its own. We need to keep disseminating knowledge as much as we can but there will always be aspects that will be kept as internal know-how within a specific group and that will not be revealed (i.e. trade secrets). Nevertheless, the information related to the basic principles in which a process works must be open and accessible to everyone. That is what I personally hope to have contributed to in the past years and what I will keep certainly doing in the future. Disseminative activities such as workshops and lectures are very important for me because they introduce attendants to a more complete understanding of ideals, values, methods, processes and overall consequent shifts.

  • What are the factors, in your opinion, that are slowing down the development of mycelium based objects to replace styrofoam or insulation panels on the global scale?

One factor is that there appears to be a general misunderstanding about the process. People think that it is easy to grow materials by employing fungal mycelium. The reality is that it is a rather articulated job, with some very specific rules that one needs to get acquainted with. To do so, one must try and potentially fail multiple times, in order to succeed. The fact of accepting failure as a positive element towards the establishment of a consistent set of protocols and positive outcomes is fundamental and it requires time and plenty of patience.

Another factor is the specific model that one develops for such initiatives, when willing to grow materials and products at industrial scale. It certainly very much depends on what one focuses on, which market, which specific product, the competitive advantage, the value proposition, etc. All such analyses and decisions play a pivotal role  in making a project succeed or not. Cost-competitiveness in the market is certainly one of the most important factors within our current capitalist system, strongly influencing the success of a project.

At the same time, in order to make a project happen you need resources. If you don’t have a lot of revenues to invest in such an initiative, you need to identify entities that can support you. Unfortunately, the EU situation is quite different from other markets. For instance, in the USA, companies and individuals tend to invest great amounts of resources, sometimes just based on ideas. In Europe, the system functions differently. While investors appreciate your prototypes and/or consolidated production protocols, capitals are hardly granted before reaching a demonstrated feasibility of your initiative at scale. The positive factor in this is that, by being serious and committed to the establishment of actually well-working plans, you possibly conduct  a more honest, less speculative kind of business, even if you proceed a little slower. Hence the difference between a serious and structured “promise” and what may sometimes be just considered a hypothesis.

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