Researcher aims to use fungus to insulate Alaska homes

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A University of Alaska-Anchorage researcher wants to put fungus in the walls of your home.

Really.

Dr. Philippe Amstislavski, a university professor and environmental scientist, said he is using Alaskan mushrooms create biodegradable insulation for Arctic infrastructure.

"In the North, we spend a lot of time indoors," said Amstislavski, a former Yale research fellow. "Because of the climate, we require insulation for pretty much anything we build: We require insulation for roads, we require insulation for housing, for pipes and infrastructure.

"Everything has to be insulated, so that it doesn't freeze,” he said. “Also, so that we don't freeze."

The project is still in the testing and research stages, but researchers hope it could one day be used in buildings across Alaska.

It may seem like a far cry from the insulation used in our homes and beneath our streets, but the 'biofoam,' as Amstislavski calls it, has a comparable r-value to traditional insulators. Essentially, the thermal resistance of his green insulation matches that of the plastic padding found in homes around the nation. It will keep you just as warm, and is even projected to be cost-competitive.

In a state where nearly everything that comes here stays here, a completely organic insulation that blends harmlessly back into the earth could be a game-changer.

"You literally could put the whole structure in your garden, and it will disintegrate into the soil," Amstislavski said. "The thousands of cubic tons of plastic from insulation that's brought to the North stays in the North. And it creates environmental problems down the line, because plastics don't biodegrade." The story behind the project begins with a team of researchers, comprising Dr. Amstislavski, an environmental scientist; Zhaouhi 'Joey' Yang, a civil and permafrost engineer; and Maria White, a biochemistry student, going mushroom hunting.

"We started by interviewing several species of mushrooms as job candidates, and we found fungi that's very common in Alaska," Amstislavski said. "It grows probably in your backyard, right now."

He takes a tiny bottle of mycelium cells - one tiny part of the whole sample - and feeds it a combination of water and sawdust. It's molded to whatever shape desired and heated in a type of incubator, before being left to grow over the course of a few days or weeks, depending on the amount needed. Then, it's put into a dryer.

"We can produce this in a matter of a week," Amstislavski said, noting that in the future, construction workers could potentially grow the insulation at their building sites. "We wouldn't have to pay for expensive shipping, and we can produce it on-site," he said.

The mycelium cells are the key ingredient. Essentially, mushrooms and various types of fungi have small, root-like features in the vegetative parts of their structures. There is a branching network of rootlets, which are microscopic, hollow tubes. These tubes are made from chitin, a strong, natural material, much like the keratin found in human hair and nails, except keratin is a protein and chitin is a carbohydrate. The latter serves as the primary building block of exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Microscopically, the material looks like a super-fine mesh.

The team can cover the dried pieces in a type of natural rubber to prevent it from flaking and picking up divets from fingertips. Alternatively, they can also choose to easily transport the original mix and incubate it wherever they please, since the solution takes up so little space. "This material is biodegradable, locally-sourced, locally-produced, and requires very little energy as input," Amstislavski said. "And its properties are comparable to plastic insulation. It can be produced on-site, literally in Alaska, not far from where it would be applied."

According to Amstislavski, the research is finally starting to pay off.

"It's challenging at times, but it is as rewarding as possible," he said. "We're really looking forward to developing this so that it can become a viable alternative to insulation in the North."

Dr. Amstislavski said the next step of this project is to start fire testing, allowing his team to gauge flammability and smoke production. It's been said that the new insulation doesn't ignite, though, and instead chars, making it safer than traditional insulation. And, if left in its natural state, the mycelium mix can actually heal itself and continue rapid growth as it has space to do so. Once dried, it won't grow anymore.

"I wish I could tell you that this will be available next week at Home Depot," Amstislavski said. "This is not yet the case. Biotechnology takes time, and we have a lot yet to learn from this organism."

The researcher said he could not name the specific fungus that would be used because it is the subject of a patent application. He said it is a "common white-rot fungus that feeds on dead trees in Alaska. It looks like white mold on the stumps."

This story was originally posted on March 18, 2016.