From food to fashion to medicine, mushrooms are the sustainable solution du jour. And now, they’re coming to make tech more eco-friendly, too. A new breakthrough sees computer chips and batteries rely on mushroom skins.
New research out of Austria’s Johannes Kepler University sees potential for mushrooms across technology. Their findings are published in the journal Science Advances.
“Electronic devices are irrevocably integrated into our lives. Yet, their limited lifetime and often improvident disposal demands sustainable concepts to realize a green electronic future,” the researchers wrote.
“We demonstrate the versatility of the material for sustainable electronics on a profound level, bringing us closer toward a more sustainable architecture of electronic devices.”
The team says research must shift its focus on substituting nondegradable and difficult-to-recycle materials to allow either biodegradation or facile recycling of electronic devices. They say they’ve found a use for mycelium—the root structure of mushrooms—in replacing hard-to-recycle electronic parts.
Specifically, the researchers say smart devices made with sustainable materials is a challenge beyond the eco watch strap, for example.
But carbon biomaterials including carbon nanotubes and graphene “are promising,” the researchers say, due to their “excellent electronic and mechanical characteristics,” which the team says may lead to a new class of electronics.
According to Martin Kaltenbrunner, one of the researchers, the substrate—the insulating and cooling base found in all electronics—is often the most difficult part of any circuit to recycle. It’s most often made of plastics that can’t be broken down and can wind up in landfills, contributing to the global plastic pollution crisis.
“It’s also the largest part of the electronics and has the lowest value, so if you have certain chips on it that actually have a high value, you might want to recycle them,” Kaltenbrunner said.
The team says the material showing the biggest potential is mycelium skin, coming from a saprophytic fungus Ganoderma lucidum, which grows naturally on dead hardwood in mild temperate climates.
The fungi remained flexible after being dried, and the researchers say it serves as a good insulator, able to withstand high temperatures of more than 390°F (200°C).
Despite being an organic material, the researchers say mycelium skin could last hundreds of years, potentially extending the life of many electronics. And once the device reaches its end of life, the material will biodegrade in soil in a matter of weeks.
The researchers say the mycelium exhibits “promising properties” and could bring technology closer to “high-performance polymer microfoams than to other as-grown biomaterials, and environmentally benign posttreatment procedures allow tuning of mechanical properties.”
Using the mycelium as a battery source as well, the team achieved “untethered operation of a standalone circuit directly incorporating our mycelium battery, a capacitive sensor, and all necessary communication modules.”
The findings come as mycelium is already in the spotlight; most recently, Balenciaga debuted a €9,000 coat made from mycelium. Hermès is working on a bag made from the material. Luxury carmakers are looking at mushroom leather too as a replacement for cow leather and unsustainable plastic-based materials.
Twenty to 50 million metric tons of electronic waste are disposed of worldwide every year—making up about two percent of all landfill waste and 70 percent of all toxic waste. Only about 12 percent of all electronic waste is recycled.
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