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Student harnesses fungi to create sustainable building material

Ben-Gurion University student produces prototype insulation material with negative carbon footprint out of fungal threads and rapeseed straw

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Fungal threads. (Jerzy Opioła, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Fungal threads. (Jerzy Opioła, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

A doctoral student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel is using fungi to develop sustainable insulation for the construction industry.

Achiya Livne presented his mycoblocks at the 50th conference of the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

Buildings are responsible for around 40% of all energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in the industrialized world, Livne told the confab.

More than 33 billion tons of concrete are produced every year, worldwide, with cement -– a key ingredient — responsible for around eight to nine percent of global warming carbon emissions.

Livne set out to find a building material that could absorb, rather than emit, CO₂, alighting upon mycelium — fungal threads that can be easily cultivated and are remarkably strong.

The mushrooms we see above ground are the fruiting bodies.

Below ground are extensive networks of mycelium, which break down organic matter in the soil.

Insulation material for the construction industry made out of fungal threads and rapeseed straw by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev doctoral student Achiya Livne. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Mycelium forms physical connections between plants in a complex system that has come to be known as the Wood Wide Web.

The threads can extend the reach of a plant’s roots to water and nutrients by as much as 100 times, according to English biologist Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures.”

Livne has created a prototype that uses mycelium to bind agricultural waste – in this case, rapeseed straw, although grapevine or date palm prunings could also be used.

Ben Gurion University doctoral student, Achiya Livne, with one of his mycoblocks, at the annual conference of the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, in Tel Aviv, July 7, 2022 (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The mycelium grows as it feeds on the organic matter. After a couple of weeks, they are sufficiently developed to be heated, whereupon they die.  The result is a fire-resistant block that is stronger than polystyrene and has a negative carbon footprint.

The CO₂ emitted while the fungi are alive and respiring is less than the CO₂ absorbed by the agricultural waste when it was still living. Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air to use in photosynthesis.

Livne is now trying to find a way to reduce or eliminate the need to heat the mycelium.

The fine fungal threads – called hyphae – are being used in an increasing number of applications worldwide, from building materials and textiles to substitutes for meat, leather, and plastic.

In the US, a company called Ecovative Design has been making packaging materials and other products out of fungal hyphae.

Another company, Mogu, based in Italy, uses mycelium to manufacture acoustic panels.

According to Sheldrake, material from portobello mushrooms could one day replace graphite in lithium batteries, while mycelium of other species can already be used by doctors as an effective skin substitute.

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