New Uses For Plants: Cattail Insulation and Fungal “Styrofoam™”

Foundation outside by rosmary

Foundation outside (CC BY 2.0) by rosmary

How Plants Work….For Us

Back in the day, if I was teaching botany or plant physiology, I’d typically start off the first-class with reasons why the students should care about plants. (Sad, but true.)

Besides reminding them that the air they breathed and the food they consumed (even if they only drank beer and ate steak) ultimately came from plants, I also noted that plants provided their clothing (cotton), shelter (wood), drugs (including caffeine and nicotine), heat (wood, oil, natural gas, coal), and transportation (gasoline). And I usually had to remind them that the so-called “fossil fuels” – coal, oil, and natural gas – are derived mainly from ancient (millions of years old) plant material, not dinosaur fossils.

Thanks to some recent reports, I’m delighted to be able to add a couple more items to the above list. (And I hope you’ll excuse me if I include fungi in the general category of “plants”, at least for this post.)

Cattail Insulation Material

Although plant material in the form of cellulose has been long used to help insulate homes, a new (at least to me) source of insulation material has been developed, namely, cattails.

Just to remind you, cattails are common and conspicuous wetland plants, growing along the edges of lakes and other freshwater bodies. The American “cattails” (a.k.a., “bulrushes” in the UK & Australia) are members of the plant genus Typha.

In a recent news item about using cattails for insulation, Dr. Martin Krus, Head of the Test Center at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics states that: “As one of nature’s swamp plants, cattails are resistant to molds and are very well equipped to deal with moisture. The leaves of the plant have a fiber-reinforced supporting tissue that is filled up with a soft sponge tissue. Through this special construction, they are extraordinarily stable and possess an excellent insulating effect. This effect is also preserved in the finished products.”

Briefly summarized, the cattail material is processed into panels, which have excellent fireproofing, soundproofing and heat insulation properties. (This report has certainly changed the way I’ll think about cattails from now on.)

styrofoam sunset by theilr

styrofoam sunset (CC BY-SA 2.0) by theilr

Fungal “Styrofoam™”

I recently found some really interesting articles about the potential use of fungi to replace plastics, specifically, Styrofoam™ as a packaging material, here and in the May 20, 2013 issue of the New Yorker.

Styrofoam™ is particularly nasty stuff. It seems to never degrade. Indeed it may last for thousands and thousands of years. It’s depressing to consider that those Styrofoam™ packing peanuts – what we used to refer to as “ghost turds” – will still be around long after we are all dead.

Anyway, to summarize, a couple of young entrepreneurs, with a lot of prodding and help from their former professor Burt Swersey at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have developed a way to manufacture packing material, analogous to Styrofoam™, using fungi.

And with the help of a mycologist Sue S. Van Hook, they chose fungi related to the genus Laetiporus, what you might be familiar with as “chicken of the woods”.

Briefly, to plastic forms filled with wood pieces and other scraps they add the fungal spores. The spores germinate and use the wood scraps of the source of food. What results after a few weeks is a mass of fungal hyphae with the texture similar to Styrofoam™. (How this works is much better described here.) But of course this fungal “Styrofoam™” is biodegradable.

Over the past few years the business, called Ecovative, has grown from a handful of people to nearly 100. The company has recently expanded its relationship with the large corporation Sealed Air . You can find out lots more about Ecovative HERE.

And here’s a video of one the young founders of Ecovative, thanks to the folks at TED:

WOW! Here’s an example of young entrepreneurs actually solving a real-world problem and not spending their time writing iPhone apps, for example.

Food for thought: Are there too many smart people chasing too many dumb ideas?. (Why does some biofuel research come to mind?)

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