Science for Everyone

Mushroom Buoys and Beyond

Post by Jacque Rosa, Science Education Intern

Just yesterday, Island Ecology students were given a line of 16 buoys to deploy off the coast of Hurricane Island that are going to be monitored over the next few months. However, these weren’t your typical lobster buoys. These buoys were made of mushrooms…does it get any cooler than that?

This story begins with two engineering students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who invented “Mushroom Material” as part of a senior project. This product, now manufactured by their company Ecovative, consists of 100% plant based farm waste and fungal mycelium (root structure of a mushroom). After testing, Mushroom Materials proved to be strong, insulative, flame-resistant, and buoyant. With the help of Sue Van Hook, now chief mycologist of Ecovative, their business has taken off, and aims to reduce the use of petroleum based plastic foams.

Sue explains how the idea behind Mushroom Materials came about

Sue Van Hook, whose grandfather was a lobsterman in nearby North Haven, grew up painting wooden buoys and witnessed the transition to foam buoys. Van Hook saw the potential of Mushroom Materials to replace foam buoys and reduce the overall amount of debris entering the marine environment. Currently, 80% of plastics in the ocean can be traced back to landfills, and 25% of that is Styrofoam. Van Hook is utilizing stations in Maine (like Hurricane Island) to test her products in the field. Van Hook visited Hurricane Island yesterday while acting as guest scientist aboard the American Promise, the home base for the Rozalia Project, which focuses on ocean health through education, marine debris cleanups, and research. Her presentation on Hurricane blew us away. As a community that finds hundreds of buoys washed up on our shores, we were incredibly excited at the prospect of a natural solution.

Taking a closer look at our trial buoys. The brown buoys have the resin coating.

So how are Mushroom Materials made? Its simple: mushrooms are collected from the woods, cloned in a lab, and then grown on plant waste where their mycelium penetrate the material and create a strong mass by gluing the material together as they digest it. Unlike plastic and Styrofoam, Ecovative’s product requires a fraction of the energy to manufacture, contains no toxic chemicals, and is completely biodegradable. You can even crumble it up in your garden as compost! Mushroom Materials can also be grown into variety of shapes and sizes in only a few days.

Mushroom buoy field trials are currently taking place in Boothbay and here off Hurricane Island. The trial buoys we received were either coated with a silica-based paint or a 40% biowaste resin, which is resistant to marine decay. Hurricane Island staff and students will monitor the buoys weekly, by weighing them and checking for any damage, mold, or algae growth. This project presents an opportunity for students to participate in research project that supports a shift away from plastics. Ecovative is certainly headed in the right direction, and we more than happy to be a part of the movement to a healthier, happier ocean.

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