Making mycelium material
Transactions began with a very limited understanding of what microorganisms were and their potential within the field of art and design. Over the past two years I have heard of many projects involving the design of living things such as 3D printing mushroom canapés (C.Rutzerveld, 2014) and growing bacterial cellulose into endless rolls of material (Domestic Futures, 2015), but it had remained a mystery as to how you would go about doing it yourself. Over consumption and subsequent waste being sent to landfill has lead to governments employing energy efficiency standards and sustainability development around the world (M.Braungart and W.McDonough, 2009). Although having said this, when we dispose of our waste, recycled or otherwise, we know it goes “away”, but we don’t have a connection with the remains of what has been consumed(M.Braungart and W.McDonough, p81, 2009). Where is “away”? By putting the job of recycling and waste disposal into another’s’ hands we feel justified in ignoring our responsibility when thinking about what could be done with our leftovers (be that food, packaging, old clothes etc). What would the world look like if we had to keep everything we ever bought? If we couldn’t throw anything away and had to physically recycle our waste ourselves? I had heard about growing material out of agricultural by-products and mushroom mycelium (Ecovative design, 2016), but how could people do this with their own waste in their own homes? Mycelium is the root structure of mushrooms that is made up of threads called hyphae that spread out like glue to connect substrates together. It grows all over the world in different strains and 90% of the earth’s plants are connected by it. This project looked into how I could make my own mycelium material at home with limited knowledge, and how I could communicate my designs and method effectively with others.
Process and Outcome
My research started by looking into projects that use mycelium to make structures. These included Maurizio Montalti and his ‘Growing Lab’, Ecovative designs packaging ‘MycoMake’ and MycoWorks’ leather. These projects helped to feed my imagination about what could be possible when growing mycelium materials. I looked into waste and by-products from the manufacturing and natural systems that are already in place around me, such as scrap fabric pieces from the fashion department at ECA, waste paper from illustration and graphics, used coffee grounds, waste cardboard and dead leaves fallen from trees around Edinburgh. If I could grow a useful material on such by-products, perhaps people would not think of the substrates as waste, but as food, for the mycelium to grow on.
It was essential to start making my own mycelium and testing its capabilities. I started by following Youtube tutorials and then, after looking at the outcomes, I could refine the method to make them more successful. For example, in order to prevent contamination it was essential for the components and working space to be sterile, as well as this, the mycelium needs air circulation to grow so it should have air gaps in its container. After two more experiments using different substrates for growth (including ground coffee, dead leaves, cardboard and malt agar), I was able to refine my experiment even further and after speaking to mycologists in both the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh and Kings Buildings at the University of Edinburgh I could confidently set up my final tests for my project outcomes.
- sterile equipment
- a strong strain of oyster mushroom mycelium (bought mycelium from Ann Millers)
- a range of substrate (cardboard, scrap cotton calico and dead leaves, individually soaked in sugar)
- a sturdy container for them to grow in
- a warm, dark place in order to store them and encourage growth
- cling film to cover the tests with pin holes to provide air circulation
This meant I had nine samples showing the stages of growth and four final baked outcomes to show the possible material types from these substrates.
Diving into the world of microorganisms was difficult at first; there was a definite knowledge gap, but I found that if you showed an interest and asked questions then researchers, scientists and students were eager to show you what they were working on. It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t meant to understand everything they said, but that I could extrapolate the important characteristics of the microorganisms that could potentially be useful for my project. Sometimes I spent a couple of hours speaking to researchers who were not very helpful in terms of the area of their research, such as focusing more on the fruiting body of mushrooms or having expertise in lichens, rather than the root structure of mushrooms. Nevertheless these interviewees helped lead me to those who would be more helpful within my project, hence my being able to find Dr Patrick Hickey, a doctor of mycology, and the first conversations were still valid and useful components of my research.
When looking at the current resources for how to grow your own mycelium I was working from YouTube videos and various tips from the Ecovative Grow-It-Yourself guide, but one thing stood out, I needed to stop researching and tangibly get hold of some mycelium. By getting my hands messy, armed with cardboard and oyster mushrooms from an Asian supermarket, I was able to discern what worked well (using cardboard as a substrate) and what needed to be improved (ensuring sterile conditions of the work place). Trial and error helped me to refine and adjust my methodology. There was a risk with this project that the mycelium would not grow and therefore would leave me with small piles of chopped up cardboard and leaves. This risk, alongside being uncertain of how best to generate mycelium, meant there was a reasonable amount of failure. Having seen these errors and refining my methods I am more confident to continue with my project; knowing the pitfalls such as contaminated apparatus means I can work to avoid infecting the mycelium by sterilising all components in the process.
My project has been able to identify how to grow my own oyster mycelium locally, but in the time allocated for the project I have not been able to grow any other strains. As another result of the time constrains I found it best to order mycelium spawn from Aberdeenshire in order to inoculate my substrates for the tests three (B) and four. The result was a fast growing feathery mycelium that spread throughout the substrates within two weeks, which was exciting to see and document. The answer is, yes, I can produce it locally, but there is still a lot of research that could be done in order to create different mycelium strains that have different material properties when being grown on various substrates. My challenge was to be able to communicate my design and making process, in order for others to be able to understand better how we can grow mycelium materials. The difficulties here were being able to document all stages of growth, since the mycelium wasn’t always growing in the same place, from the ASCUS lab to the studio to my flat, and therefore get a rounded view of the best conditions for mycelium growth. Having said this, my final artefact shows a development from the oyster mushroom, to the home grown mycelium, to the mycelium growing in different substrates and then finally to the baked samples where the mycelium has been prevented from growing further. This development helps to explain the journey of growth and that is very satisfying to see in a final outcome.
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