Doctoral student Noam Attias combines biotechnology with design concepts and environmental awareness to create biodegradable products made from mushrooms
How many types of mushrooms are there in the world? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Millions? Surprisingly, there is no clear answer, as entire portions of the mushroom kingdom have yet to be studied. However, in recent years, this lapse is being reversed. Because of their potential usefulness, especially in fields related to the environment and combating the climate crisis, mushrooms are now being analyzed under the microscope more than ever.
Mushrooms are now at the forefront of scientific research and are being studied for treating industrial waste, dissolving plastic residue that floats on water, and contending with gas leaks from old-fashioned energy companies. In addition, research being carried out in the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning is evaluating the potential of using materials based on mushroom mycelium – the mass of thread-like filaments that make up the mushroom – as an environmentally friendly alternative to polluting raw materials such as plastics and Styrofoam.
Technion doctoral student Noam Attias is researching the subject under the supervision of the Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, Professor Yasha (Jacob) Grobman, and the Chair of the Faculty’s Industrial Design program, Professor Ezri Tarazi. According to Ms. Attias, her research combines design concepts with aspects of biotechnology for the purpose of developing new materials and innovative outcomes that take advantage of the material’s attributes.
Ms. Attias, who has a B.A. in Industrial Design and a Master’s in Biotechnology, believes combining these two fields of knowledge paves the way to innovative applications. Because her research is groundbreaking, she must create new knowledge practically from scratch. “There is almost no research being conducted in Israel related to producing materials from mushroom mycelium,” she noted. “It is difficult for materials engineers to compare the traits of these materials with those of existing industrial materials because these behave differently. There is no standard to which they can be compared. Even the correct sample size is not known in advance.”
Ms. Attias’ research began as an attempt to create a new material from mushroom mycelium by growing them on various wood fiber media from local green waste. She studied the results from the perspective of their chemical composition, resistance to compression, weight, and water absorption, and was surprised to discover that they resemble … Styrofoam. As a result, she designed a jerrycan – a water container that looks like Styrofoam – that does not harm the environment like Styrofoam does. The innovation and creativity that Ms. Attias demonstrated in this process led the product to be displayed at the Rishon Lezion Museum for two years as part of an exhibition in which Prof. Tarazi participated with the Design-Tech lab he heads. At the same time, the research generated ideas for other sustainable substitutes: seedling protectors, packaging for plant seedlings, and even women’s hygiene products.
Convinced of the enormous advantages of using mushroom mycelium, Ms. Attias started developing nano-biological materials that combine mycelium with nanocellulose fibers, which are essential to the food packaging industry. Here too, the material developed by Ms. Attias has a huge advantage as far as reducing environmental damage is concerned. “During the joint development of the nanocellulose and the mycelium, we discovered that the nanocellulose becomes an integral part of the mushroom, thereby producing strong and durable material. We found out that the mushroom contributes to the nanocellulose’s resilience to humidity, thereby expanding its potential uses. As a result of the global environmental crisis, and certainly in the past year during which the use of disposable food packaging grew, the environmental value of packaging made from biodegradable materials is obvious.”
Ms. Attias considers herself to be a researcher in the unique niche that melds industrial design with environmental awareness. “There is a significant difference between materials developers and designers; while many researchers develop innovative materials but have difficulty finding efficient and significant applications for them, designers look for new materials suitable for sustainable products,” she said. “My goal is to bridge these two worlds, using knowledge and tools from my biotechnology studies and combining them with the way I think as a designer.”
Recently, Ms. Attias won the Jacobs Prize for an outstanding article. The prize is awarded by the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Graduate School, and she received it for the article published in the journal Advanced Sustainable Systems. Her article was also selected for the cover of that issue.