This blog has periodically covered advances in bioplastics, such as compostable garbage bags, starch- and sugar-based polymers and other biomass-based materials. The current issue of New Yorker magazine carries a long article about a new technology that uses mushroom spores and such biomass materials as corn stalks and husks to make a molded packaging material that looks and acts like styrofoam(!). It is starting to be used to package wine bottles, protect furniture and for a number of other uses and was recently licensed to Sealed Air Corporation, one of the largest firms making plastic films and other packaging materials. Quite the opposite from non-biodegradable polystyrene, which litters landfills and creates unsightly beach litter, the new material biodegrades in landfill in thirty days (!).
One of the founders of the technology, Eban Bayer, grew up in Vermont, where he helped his father with a large maple syrup business. Wood chips used to stoke a high temperature furnace to cook the maple sap sometimes got wet in storage and sprouted mushrooms which stuck to the chips to make a solid clump. He remembered this years later when, together with co-inventor Gavin McIntyre, he took an Inventor’s Studio class at Rennselaer Polytecnic Institute in Troy, NY, taught by Bert Swersey, himself a successful inventor. The challenge was to make an insulating material out of a mineral called perlite. Bayer took mushrom spores from a kit, mixed them with water and a biomass nutrient in a glass jar and added some perlite. A few days later, there was a solid disk of perlite knit together with mycelium (mushroom) strands.
Bayer and McIntyre spent several years studying and impoving their invention, at some point joined by Sue Van Hook, a faculty member at Skidmore who is an expert in mycology (study of mushrooms). Mycelium has threadlike cells that liberate enzymes that digest food sources and form polymer-like structures. Certain mushrooms are better than others for this use. Eventually, the process was settled and it was time to go public with the technology called Evocative. The inventors both spoke at TED conferences, then in 2008 entered a competition in Amsterdam for carbon-dioxide reducing business plans. They came in first and received the 500,000 Euro prize.
Evocative now has a plant the size of a big box store on Green Island, near Troy where packaging and insulating blocks are made from cornstalks, cotton waste, peanut hulls, wheat straw and blue denim. Customers include Dell, Steelcase, Crate&Barrel and Puma. Some investors, such as 3M Company, have been brought in. Royalty income from Sealed Air will provide aditional revenues. The Chinese are interested in licensing the technology.
Styrene, a multi-billion pound petrochemical, is primarily used to make polystyrene and automobile tires. The Evocative process can be viewed as an important way to substitute petrochemicals with organic wastes that make a biodegradable product – truly a disruptive technology.