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Science Works: Small Business Grows Green Alternative to Styrofoam

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MUSIC: "Science Works” theme music.

LACAPRA: Welcome to EPA’s “Science Works,” a podcast about how the EPA uses science to meet its mission to protect your health and environment. From “Science Works” at EPA, I’m Véronique LaCapra.

This week we’ll hear about a new environmental technology that’s being developed with support from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

MCINTYRE: “At Ecovative Design, we grow a replacement for expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam.”

LACAPRA: Gavin McIntyre is the co-founder and chief scientist of Ecovative Design, an environmental start-up company based in Troy, New York. With the help of seed money from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program – or SBIR - the company is developing a new product to replace synthetic foams in packaging and construction.

This project is one of many ways that EPA is working to promote green building - in this case, by funding the development of an environmentally-friendly construction material.

MCINTYRE: “We take agricultural byproducts […] like rice hulls, cottonseed hulls, and buckwheat hulls, and what we do is we bond them together using what’s called fungal mycelium – you can think of it as mushroom roots.”

LACAPRA: McIntyre and his colleagues inject living mushroom cells into a mixture of water, hydrogen peroxide, mineral particles, and agricultural byproducts. After spending a week or two in the dark, the cells grow into a fungal mycelium – a tangled web made up of thousands of root-like strands that hold the hulls and other materials together. The product is then dried to kill the mycelium and keep it from sprouting into mushrooms.

Ecovative Design calls the material “Greensulate™.”

MCINTYRE: “The material has comparable strength characteristics as well as insulation values to basic expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam, and has applications both in the construction and packaging markets.”

LACAPRA: Unlike synthetic foams, which are made from petroleum and break down very slowly in the environment, Greensulate™ is made from plant waste and is completely biodegradable. And since it literally grows itself, it takes about one-tenth as much energy to produce as synthetic foams. McIntyre says it’s also non-flammable — and cost-competitive.

MCINTYRE: “Due to the fact that we use agricultural wastes, which we get at very low cost since these are typically burdensome to the farmer, we can share these cost savings with potential customers.”

LACAPRA: Ecovative Design plans to develop a network of manufacturing facilities that would use only agricultural wastes from nearby farms, to minimize the environmental and financial costs of transportation.

Gavin McIntyre says Greensulate™ could replace polystyrene for a wide range of uses:

MCINTYRE: “Everything from structural cores [in] wind turbine blades, boats, and lightweight vehicle panels to household insulation, packaging materials, and even the core on your surfboard.”

LACAPRA: But if Greensulate™ does catch on, will a foam replacement made from a fungus trigger allergy symptoms?

MCINTYRE: “When it comes to fungi, allergen concerns are related to spores. In our process, we only use the vegetative growth stage, or mycelium, there’s no spores at all in our process, no freeable particles, so no allergen concerns.”

LACAPRA: And even though Greensulate™ is made of organic materials and is designed to decompose in your compost pile or garden, McIntyre says it won’t break down or attract pests when used in building construction.

If all goes well, Ecovative Design hopes to begin selling their product as a packaging material in 2009, and as a construction material in 2010. You can find out more about the company and their products on their website, at ecovativedesign.com.

And for information on EPA’s funding opportunities for small businesses, go to our website: epa.gov/ncer/sbir.

MUSIC: "Science Works” theme music.

LACAPRA: Thanks for listening to “Science Works,” a podcast series produced by EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Please check back again soon for our next program, at epa.gov/ncer.

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