Old fungus could soon be used to make new plastics

The fungus has been traditionally used as a fire starter.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Tinder fungus.jpg
Tinder fungus.


A fungus called tinder fungus that grows on the bark of rotting beech and birch trees has been used as a fire starter for a long time, but it may just have a new use: the creation of plastics.

Humans have used the material to feed fires for centuries. But it recently piqued the interest of the scientific community as a replacement for certain plastics, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland proceeded to analyze the internal structure of the fungus, formally called Fomes fomentarius, to understand its strong yet lightweight consistency. 

Similar to plywood or leather

The fungus was discovered to have a similar structural strength to plywood or leather but at a lower weight.

“F. fomentarius fruiting bodies are ingeniously lightweight biological designs, simple in composition but efficient in performance,” the study stated.

“Growing the material using simple ingredients is an alternative solution to overcome the cost, time, mass production, and sustainability of how we make and consume materials in the future.”

Study co-author Dr. Pezhman Mohammadi, a senior scientist at VTT, told CNN in an email that the fungus could be used to produce certain grades of plastic and some shock-absorbing materials.

F. fomentarius “has a very stiff and hard protective outer layer, has softer spongy mid-layer, and a strong and tough inner layer each (of which) could outperform a different class of man-made and natural materials,” Mohammadi explained.

Developed in a lab and not harvested in nature

There are some limitations with the material, however. Tinder fungus cannot be harvested from the wild as it takes seven to 10 years to grow to a substantial size. It’s also a crucial player in its ecosystem that should not be disturbed as it blooms on the bark of rotting trees to help in the decomposition process.

Instead, researchers are looking at and have made the first steps toward growing the fungus in a lab environment, Mohammadi said.

“With the advances in industrial biotechnology, we forecast the production of Metric Tons in a matter of weeks in contrast to wild-type mushrooms that take years to grow,” Mohammadi added. “For example in our research institute, we have 1000-liter pilot scale bioreactors where this could be carried out.

“However, like any starting technology, it would take some years of R&D to be realized fully.”

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