The aim of this new research is to develop biologically based substitutes for the harmful flame retardantsnow used in building materials that thrive on organic waste and are nontoxic even if they burn.
In a set of recent papers, scientists from Australia’s RMIT University described the successes of growing molasses-fed sheets of fungi that could eventually be stacked in layers for applications such as fire-resistant cladding in construction or leather-like textiles for the fashion industry.
"Cladding" is the term used to describe a thin, external covering or skin applied to another material, such as the exterior of a structure, to provide insulation, fire resistance, or other properties.
To help prevent incidents like the 2017 UK Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which combustible cladding contributed to deadly flames, the new "bio-based" compounds would cover other building components.
The materials under study make use of the mycelium, a fungi's threadlike, rootlike structure that can underpin fruit-like mushrooms and has fire-resistant qualities.
“The great thing about mycelium is that it forms a thermal protective char layer when exposed to fire or radiant heat,” Everson Kandare, one researcher, said. “The longer and the higher the temperature at which mycelium char survives, the better its use as a fireproof material.”
Mycelium-based fireproofing has the advantage of avoiding the harmful chemicals and plastics used in conventional fireproofing.
Fire retardants that contain bromide, iodide, phosphorus, and nitrogen are effective but have negative impacts on human health and the environment, according to Kandare. They can affect plant and animal life, since they are neurotoxins and carcinogens.
Kandare pointed out that burning mycelium results in the production of only carbon dioxide and water.
Using bioengineering, mycelium can be made homogeneous and "paper-thin" while keeping its structure and fire resistance.
“Fungi are usually found in a composite form mixed with residual feed material, but we found a way to grow pure mycelium sheets,” Tien Huynh, one researcher, explained.
Although it doesn't seem like the research has a specific focus on how to adapt to the Earth's changing climate, employing nontoxic fireproofing could assist people secure their homes in a warmer environment when fires are more likely to break out close to human structures.
Mycelium still needs to be improved before it can compete with today's fire-resistant materials, according to the researchers.
Huynh remarked that while fungal grows slowly and is significantly more difficult to create at scale, plastics are rapid and simple to produce.
Still, there might be a place for fireproof fungi in the future.
According to Huynh, the researchers have already begun discussions with mushroom farmers about using their byproducts. Working with the mushroom business would eliminate the need for new farms while creating goods that satisfy fire safety requirements sustainably.