It started as an accident.
When Philip Ross, a fine-arts professor at the University of San Francisco since 2008, began hunting mushrooms in 1987 for cooking and medicinal purposes — and eventually for art — he had no idea he would one day use fungi to create, say, a chair or a table.
It wasn't until Ross tried to destroy an old sculpture he had created
using the mycelium — or tubular filaments — from mushrooms that he realized its versatile, indestructible qualities.
“We had a bonfire outside of the studios,” said Ross, whose work involving mushrooms has been displayed in numerous museums including at the Exploratorium in July. “I was sure that this thing was going to go up in giant flames, [but] it sat there for 20 minutes — a huge, dry, cellulosic thing. The sculpture wouldn't burn. It was naturally fire-retardant.”
Another time, Ross threw an 8-inch square, dried-up sculpture also made from mushroom materials against a wall in his studio. It remained intact.
“It broke through the drywall rather than busting apart,” said Ross.
That's when he began exploring the possibility that mushrooms could be used to create material so versatile it could potentially replace plastic.
“Different mushrooms have different qualities,” Ross said. “A lot of times, depending on what the tissue is like of the mushroom, you can often figure out how to make a material that might be like that.”
For Ross, the preferred method is to grow reishi mushrooms, then mold and bake their mycelium. He grows the mushrooms on “anything that grows under the sun,” from coconut husk fiber to corn cobs, soybean shells, walnut shells, paper pulp or hemp.
“You name it, and the mushrooms will grow on it,” Ross said.
Last year, Ross, along with two co-founders, launched the business MycoWorks, a material development and design company that uses mycelium-based materials to construct an environmentally conscious alternative to engineered wood and plastics.
The company uses mycelium with another main ingredient, such as engineered wood in the form of wood chips or sawdust, to create shelves, flooring, tabletops and other household goods, said Eddie Pavlu, co-founder and CEO of MycoWorks.
The mycelium — which in some products amounts to less than 10 percent of the material — acts as the binding factor that holds the object together, Pavlu said.
In other words: “Take a bucket of sawdust, put in a pinch of mycelium, and then over time that mycelium is growing, binding all of that material together,” explained Pavlu. “The longer you let it bind, the higher percentage of mycelium, the stronger it gets to be.”
For instance, with flooring, mycelium binds together the core material that is then laminated, as any core material would be.
“You wouldn't be walking on mycelium,” Pavlu said. “But what you would have is a laminated floor material. Our material would be the core material that you would laminate.”
But why use mushrooms?
“There's a handful of benefits,” Pavlu said. “Our material is strong, it's lightweight, it has very good thermal and acoustic resistance. It doesn't require a lot of energy to make. [And] it's naturally flame-resistant.”
David Gardella, president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco that was founded in 1950 to promote the understanding and enjoyment of mushrooms and other fungi, said using mushrooms as renewable resources is becoming more popular since it aligns with a greater cultural effort to promote sustainability.
“Using natural materials like mushrooms keeps that effort of sustainability going,” Gardella said. “People are looking for alternative resources … [and] using these natural resources in new, expansive, evolving ways.”
As for what's next for MycoWorks — which in October will celebrate its one-year anniversary of becoming incorporated — the company is developing various types of materials to introduce to the commercial world.
“Beyond whatever my own intentions are in business, I see that this could just become a gigantic global industry,” Pavlu said. “It's relatively easy. It's not going to take a gigantic amount of money to get it up to production. It could have a lot of effect on carbon reduction, energy reduction and material transformations.”
Meanwhile, Ross continues to work with different kinds of mushrooms, in addition to his beloved reishi.
“The mushrooms that I work with are hard and woody, also slightly flexible,” Ross said. “The material I generate reflects that. You can also make things more like vinyl, translucent leathery materials. There's just a huge variety of types of materials that you can generate from all types of mushrooms.”
And the mushrooms that Ross uses are just the tip of the iceberg, he notes.
“Between 5 to 10 percent of the global fungi population has [ever] been named,” Ross said. “There are still 90 percent of these organisms on the planet to be discovered, and all the qualities that they might have that could be used for materials seem overwhelming.”