Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, has gotten a deservedly bad rap for clogging up Earth’s arteries. But an idea thought up by Eben Bayer when he was a mechanical engineering student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute could give plastic packing peanuts a run for their money.
Food for thought: Delicately wrapped wine bottle or a couple of yeast and fungus products? Credit: Ecovative
As Senior Editor Alex Scott writes in this week’s Newscripts, Bayer devised a plan to use mycelium—tiny branching threads made by fungi—to hold together a natural, moldable packaging material. His firm, Ecovative Design, has a 40,000-sq-ft mycelium-growing facility that creates Styrofoam-shaped molds (that is, hollowed-out cavities, not fungi) for packaging delicate items.
Bayer insists that this mycelium packaging goes “head-to-head with plastic foam on cost, performance, appearance, and feel,” but Alex says he’d be interested in comparing the impacts of the two products on the marine environment and greenhouse gas emissions. And the Newscripts gang would be interested in comparing the reactions of kids when they open holiday presents wrapped in fungi.
“It does have an organic and irregular appearance,” Alex admits. “But I think once consumers learn about the environmental benefits of Ecovative’s material they would opt for it every time.”
Alex, for one, says he’d be pleased to get such an environmentally friendly wrapped package and would either put it in his compost bin or, if it was easy to crumble, use it as mulch on his flower beds. Such a green guy.
And if you read his original story carefully, you’ll notice Alex is also a punny guy. One pun that he self-edited out of print? That Bayer must have been a “fun guy” to have thought the idea up. Good one, Alex.
The next item in Alex’s column is also about how to make the world greener, this time using sound to amp up electrical output.
London-based research teams have designed a photovoltaic cell with zinc oxide nanorods that up the device’s electrical output by 40% when exposed to sound vibrations. The vibrations increase efficiency by decreasing recombination—the process of electrons converting to heat or light within the solar cells.
Roadside noise (at about 75 decibels) significantly improved performance of the ZnO-nanorod solar cells, and the high frequencies of pop and rock music beat out classical music in increasing output.
Alex would be up for trying these cells out as well, but he says: “My roof is already jammed with photovoltaics and a solar water panel”—of course it is, Alex—“but I’d have to find space outside my 15-year-old son’s room as he is a drummer. And without a lie, I can say his favorite band is Led Zeppelin.”
Good choice, says Joe Briscoe, a postdoc at Queen Mary University of London working on the project. He’s tested it already and found that “Led Zeppelin works very well.”