An organism used as fire starter for centuries could replace some plastics, study finds
The tough, bell-shaped fungus that grows on decaying bark has been used as a fire starter for centuries, hence the nickname “tinder fungus.”
Now researchers are poring over the molecular structure of this strangely powerful organism and have discovered that it may hold the secret to replacing some types of plastic.
A study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances found that some of the fungi, formally called Fomes fomentarius, have structural strength similar to plywood and leather, but are lighter.
“The F. fomentarius fruiting body is a cleverly lightweight biological design, simple in configuration but efficient in performance,” the study notes. “Using simple ingredients to grow materials is an alternative solution to overcome the cost, time, mass production and sustainability of how materials are produced and consumed in the future.”
Why F. Fomentarius is Strong
Humans have long collected F. fomentarius—sometimes called “hoof fungus” for its visual resemblance to a horse’s hoof—from the wild and used it to kindle fires. It is also used to make clothing items such as hats. However, research shows that fungi have only recently captured the interest of the scientific community.
Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Center in Finland analyzed the internal structure of F. fomentarius in more detail and sought to glimpse the microstructure that gives the fungus its unique strength and lightweight consistency. What they found is very encouraging, said study co-author Pezhman Mohammadi, PhD, a senior scientist at VTT.
The fungus has structural integrity similar to certain grades of plastic and can be used as a shock absorber replacement for things like football helmets and other sporting goods. heat and sound insulation; and even parts of consumer products such as headset parts, Mohammadi said in an email.
F. fomentarius has “a very hard and hard protective outer layer, a softer spongy middle layer, and a strong and tough inner layer, each of which can outperform different classes of man-made and natural materials.” There are possibilities,” added Mohammadi.
F. POTENTIAL USE OF FOMENTARIUS
The researchers aren’t suggesting that tinder fungi should be harvested from the wild and put into industrial processes. It takes seven to ten years to grow to a sizeable size. Very common throughout the northern hemisphere, the fungus also plays an important role in that ecosystem, blooming on the bark of rotting beech and birch trees and aiding in the decomposition process.
But researchers have taken a promising step toward growing the fungus or similar species in a laboratory setting, Mohammadi said.
“Advancements in industrial biotechnology predict metric tonnes of production in weeks, as opposed to wild-type mushrooms, which take years to grow,” Mohammadi wrote in an email. “For example, our research institute has a 1000-liter pilot-scale bioreactor that can do this.
“But like any nascent technology, it takes years of research and development to fully realize it.”