USF’s Philip Ross believes he’s discovered a replacement for plastic. The future, he says, is fungal.
The assistant professor of art and architecture has invented a process for turning mushrooms—or, more specifically, their root network, mycelium—into a durable construction material.
His patent-pending technique involves growing reishi mushrooms, and then molding and baking their mycelium. The result is a durable and fireproof material that might just replace plastic in everything from food containers, and car and airplane parts, to furniture.
It’s also strong enough to stop a bullet. To test its strength, Ross once fired a gun at close range into a mycelium brick he had created. It absorbed the bullets easily, without breaking apart.
Ross recently co-founded a start-up company, MycoWorks, that will offer custom-made products from the biodegradable and renewable mushroom source. Several Fortune 100 companies have already expressed interest.
“It’s going to change the world,” says Ross. “Soon, so many things will be grown out of mushrooms.”
The inventor is also an artist, which is how the discovery was first made. Ross was experimenting with fungi as an art material when he discovered mycelium’s unique properties. “It was a long, slow process and very accidental,” he says, while recalling playing with one of his mushroom bricks. “We kept hitting it against trees and rocks, and nothing happened to it. I thought, ‘That’s weird. It doesn’t behave like other materials.’ So, I started to investigate.”
Ross has received much attention for his “mushroom art.” A number of museums have displayed chairs, tables, and footstools made from mycelium, including Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, the San Diego New Children’s Museum, and the San Jose Museum of Art. The Exploratorium in San Francisco sells some of his creations.