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Q. Which is the greener building material, fungus or concrete? A. It depends on the electricity source.

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Q. Which is the greener building material, fungus or concrete?

A. It depends on the electricity source. There’s always more to a new material than meets the eye.
May 30, 2024

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Buildings account for 40 percent of global energy demand and a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions today. There is a growing movement around the world to use natural and biological building materials to reduce this environmental impact. And one promising candidate is construction materials made from fungi. Recent studies have shown that fungus-based materials are safer, more sustainable alternatives to construction materials made of foams and plastics.

But that might not be the case everywhere in the world, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Producing fungus-based building materials requires a large amount of electricity. So the biomaterials could, in fact, have a bigger footprint than conventional fossil fuel-based materials depending on the energy mix of the country where they are made, engineers from the University of Bristol report in the paper.

Mushrooms and other fungi typically grow in colonies. They are connected together by a sub-surface network of white thread-like structures called mycelium that acts like nutrition-providing roots. Researchers are using mycelium to make leather substitutes, packaging materials, and biodegradable substrates for electronic circuits.

In October, Stefania Akromah and colleagues at Bristol published a paper in which they suggested that mycelium composites could, as a sustainable alternative to traditional building materials, help address socio-economic and environmental challenges in Africa.

 

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For the new study, the team took a deeper dive. There is more to any new material that meets the eye, Akromah said in a press release, and there is a need to carefully consider factors such as including energy sources and lifespan, when evaluating new materials. “Our main focus was to determine if producing mycelium composites is sustainable in Africa and to identify which manufacturing processes have the most potential to damage the environment,” she said.

The Bristol conducted a life cycle assessment of mycelium materials used in the context of Africa, and compared the ecological footprint with that of conventional materials like concrete bricks. They found that the impact of mycelium composites depends significantly on the use and source of electrical power for autoclaves, incubators, and ovens. This impact was higher in countries such as South Africa where electricity comes mainly from burning coal, and lower in countries that rely more on renewable sources, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mycelium composites’ impact also depends on other factors such as travel distance and water usage. The researchers suggest that the impact can be reduced by using sustainable fuel alternatives, by managing water usage, as well as travel distance and mode of transportation. Situating production facilities closer to agricultural and forestry waste sources could be more beneficial than interregional sourcing, for example, they write. “This study offers valuable insights that can be used to proactively address the potential impact of this technology on the environment and human health,” said Akromah.

Source: Stefania Akromah et al, Potential environmental impact of mycelium composites on African communities, Scientific Reports, 2024.

Photo by Scott Fillmer on Unsplash

 

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