New Ingredient For Insulation, Packing: Mushrooms

In his latest look at the year's coolest inventions, Guy Raz talks to Eben Bayer about his company's breakthroughs, Greensulate insulation and Ecocradle packaging — both made from mushrooms. Bayer came up with the idea as a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic in New York and developed it with classmate Gavin McIntyre. Now the two have a company called Ecovative Design.

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GUY RAZ, host:

When they were students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer loved experimenting with mushrooms - not the magical variety - but mushrooms that could help the construction industry go green. Bayer and McIntyre figured out how to turn mushrooms and wood chips into things like insulation for your home and packing material.

This month, we're looking at some of the most innovative inventions we've heard about this past year, and Eben Bayer is one of the folks behind these two. He's the CEO of Ecovative Design.

Eben, welcome to the program.

Mr. EBEN BAYER (CEO, Ecovative Design): Thank you.

RAZ: So, describe what these products do - Greensulate and EcoCradle. Describe what they are first.

Mr. BAYER: Both Greensulate and EcoCradle are drop-in replacements for the expanded polystyrene you'd use either to insulate the walls of your home, keep you warm or cold, or pack things from televisions to toasters to iPods. The difference is while these products give you the same performance, physical and thermal, they're totally compostable in your own backyard, and they're grown from agricultural waste.

RAZ: Including mushrooms.

Mr. BAYER: Yes. Actually, the mushrooms are what hold them together.

RAZ: Now, how did you figure out that you could make these things from mushrooms?

Mr. BAYER: Well, I was actually originally inspired growing up in Vermont on a small farm that made maple syrup. And I go walk in the woods and what I saw in the woods is mycelium, or the root structure of mushrooms actually holding the surface of the earth together. They're sort of like nature's recyclers.

And it was a class at Rensselaer in Benner's Studio where I was challenged to apply this insight to actually forming a business with Gavin.

RAZ: And you guys, I understand, started growing mushrooms in your dorm room?

Mr. BAYER: Yeah, actually. We didn't have a lab in this class and Gavin was kind enough to offer up this nice incubator, which was the underside of his bed.

RAZ: How does it actually work? I mean, explain how you turn mushrooms into insulation.

Mr. BAYER: Well, in our process, we're basically using - the mushroom roots are actually called mycelium - as a glue. And we're basically growing a glue. And what we do is we take agricultural byproducts - these are waste products, things you wouldn't even feed to animals, like cotton gin trash or rice husks -and we wet them. We pour them into a form, basically whatever shape you want -and then we add these mushroom shells we've developed.

And just like yeast and bread, over a couple of days, they digest the agricultural byproducts and form them into strong, beautiful bio-composites. There's no chemicals. It's as simple as it gets. It's mushroom roots plus seed husks.

And because we're using a growing organism, for each unit we produce, compared to polystyrene, we use 10 times less energy and emit eight times less CO2.

RAZ: Now, you say it's more efficient to produce it but is it more efficient in its performance? I mean, you know, regular insulation does a pretty good job at saving you money on electricity bills and gas bills and so on?

Mr. BAYER: Absolutely. Greensulate, our insulation, is very competitive with what you'd put in the walls of your home. And as a bonus, our material is actually fireproof. If you go on our Web site, you can actually see videos of us putting a torch on this material and it doesn't burn. And that's from the natural silica and the rice husks we use.

RAZ: EcoCradle, the packaging, is being used already on a consumer. I mean, you've already sort of pushed that out to the markets. Greensulate is still on the, sort of the prototype phase?

Mr. BAYER: Exactly.

RAZ: Now, once you unpack your TV that's been, you know, sort of protected by EcoCradle, could you just sort of take it out, cut it up and saute it with some onions?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAYER: Actually, one of our advisors who taught that course at Rensselaer Inventor's Studio has always encouraged us to find win, win, win solutions, and that was one he suggested. But we recommend putting it in your garden where it'll actually turn into fertile soil.

RAZ: But if you did take a bite out of it, it wouldn't kill you?

Mr. BAYER: No. That would taste pretty bad though.

RAZ: That's Eben Bayer. He is the CEO of Ecovative Design. Eben, thanks so much.

Mr. BAYER: Thank you.

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