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Ecovative Design was founded in 2007 by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) graduates Eben Bayer, left, and Gavin McIntyre.

Ecovative Design is developing fungus-based biodegradable foam for automotive applications like impact bolsters and sound attenuation panels.

Fungus Foam

A New York start-up is using agricultural waste products and mushroom roots to develop petroleum-free, eco-friendly foam.
About 30 lb. of foam is used throughout every vehicle in seat cushions, arm rests, head restraints, doors, and head liners. That equates to roughly 3-billion lb. of foam produced each year in the U.S. and 9-billion produced worldwide. Considering that the majority of these foams are produced with petroleum, some automakers are seeking more sustainable alternatives.
 
Bio-based foams have begun to emerge in the industry, but not quite along the lines of what Ecovative Design (ecovativedesign.com) is developing: fungus-based, biodegradable foam for automotive applications. It isn’t using petroleum. It is using mushrooms, as well as other organics, in the form of agricultural waste.
 
The key ingredient is mycelium, the strong root system of mushrooms. It’s a natural adhesive which the company uses as a binding agent to knit together agricultural waste products like rice husks and oat hulls. The materials are mixed in trays and stored in a darkened warehouse to form over a five-day period. The parts are then cooked and dried to create strong, lightweight, waterproof, fireproof foam.
 
Ecovative Design has been producing its fungus-based foam since the company was founded in 2007 with a mission to challenge the multi-billion-dollar plastic foam industry. The majority of its work thus far has focused on protective packaging, but a two-year, $500,000 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority grant is helping the company shift gears toward developing automotive applications like impact bolsters and sound attenuation panels.
 
“When we were examining our current production system, we wondered, ‘What type of durable products can we transition to next that are of similar scale?’” says Gavin McIntyre, who founded Ecovative Design with Eben Bayer after they graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and who now serves as the company’s chief scientist. “That is what’s led us to automotive components. It leverages a number of our key material characteristics.”
 
The foam is comparable in strength to conventional foams, but McIntyre says a big differentiating factor is how it ages. He says accelerated aging tests conducted to simulate material properties over 30 years showed that Ecovative Design’s foam doesn’t degrade with age and gets stiff when subjected to heat. Comparatively speaking, plastic-based foams degrade over time and weaken when exposed to heat.
 
But perhaps the biggest benefit of Ecova-tive Design’s foam is its eco-friendliness. Unlike conventional foam, which can end up sitting in a landfill after it’s used, mycelium foam decomposes in about a month. Additionally, McIntyre says the foam will be sold at prices comparable to conventional foams.
 
If all goes according to plan, McIntyre estimates that Ecovative Design’s foam could be in automobiles within the next 12 to 18 months. The com-pany recently worked with the Ford Motor Co. to develop fungus-based foam for use in doors, dashboards, and bumpers. (Ford is no stranger to bio-based foam: It began using soy-based foam in the seat cushions of the 2008 Mustang. See: autofieldguide.com/articles/fords-pursuit-of-bio-based-plastics.)
 
McIntyre says future applications could include things like trunk bottoms and under-the-hood components.
 
Ecovative Design is currently building production factories in Green Island, NY, where it is based, and in Texas. The Green Island location is expected to open in spring 2012 while the latter is slated to open sometime in 2013.