There are traditionally two ways to make a leather jacket. One is about a cow and takes years. Another is about synthetic fabric and requires plastic. But there is a third option: thick sheets of woven mushrooms, grown in a couple of weeks on anything from sawdust to agricultural waste.
“It looks a little bit and smells a little mushroom, still, but it looks like a piece of old leather jacket,” said Alexander Bismarck, a materials scientist at the University of Vienna.
Over the past decade, companies in the United States, Indonesia and Korea have advertised fungal skin as an ethical and environmentally sustainable substitute for both cowhide and plastic. Previously, there wasn̵
Wearing fungal leather does not mean wearing a mushroom-shaped biker jacket. Instead it consists of a mat of mycelium, the underlying filiform root networks from which fruiting bodies emerge after a rain. These mycelial mats easily grow on almost any organic material.
Beginning in the 1950s, inventors began filing patents based on fungal mats as a material for paper, wound dressings, and a range of other products, but they never fully became widespread, said Mitchell Jones, lead author and scientist of the materials of the University of Vienna Technology.
But in the past decade, companies like MycoWorks and Bolt Threads have started making and selling fungal leather products.
“With skin, you are limited to the skin that an animal produces over its lifetime, while mycelial mats can be grown to specification, ”said Sophia Wang, co-founder of MycoWorks.
Dr Bismarck said the potential for custom materials is huge because different types of mushrooms have different properties, such as toughness, water resistance, and there are potentially millions of species to choose from.
Fungal skin is also potentially more sustainable than other skin sources. The tanning process is energy intensive and produces quite a lot of waste mud – and synthetic leather production requires plastic, which involves oil. “You’re having a biological organism do all of your production for you, so there’s no real energy requirement,” said Dr. Jones.
“It does not require light. And once you have this material, you can process it according to chemical treatments that are quite simple compared to what you would normally do for leather tanning.”
But while fungal skin performed quite well in the team’s durability tests, there are still some questions about its long-term durability.
“Initial industry results indicate durability is pretty good compared to animal skin,” said Dr. Jones, “but some in the industry are cheating a bit because they incorporate a felted polyester and turn it into a composite skin.”
The fungal leather industry is still in its infancy and is largely producing proof of concept for the luxury market – prototypes of Bolt Thread’s fungal leather bag that sold for around $ 400 when they were available, a similar price to a bag in good quality leather.
But Dr. Jones believes costs are likely to decrease as the industry grows. “There are already huge mushroom growing industries producing all kinds of mushrooms for the culinary market. The technology to mass produce mushrooms already exists.”
Fungal skin products may soon pop up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. The question is whether consumers will feel the magic. After all, if you regret those fungal leather pants you’ll buy in the future, can you just throw them out in the yard and let them turn into compost?
“It hasn’t all been explored yet,” said Dr. Bismarck.