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Mycelium as seen in the documentary Fantastic Fungi. Credit: Moving Art

You could soon be wearing earplugs made out of…..fungus

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Jan 12, 2021, 11:29 PM EST (Updated)

Next time the neighbors are blaring their music too loud, and you’re at a loss for earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, just shove mushrooms in your ears.

Wait — what? Would that even work, and would it give you ear fungus? Probably not (to the ear fungus too), but scientists have figured out how to make earplugs and other sound-absorbing stuff from mycelium (above). You know it has to be effective when it’s the same stuff being considered for habitats on Mars. Fungus has an advantage over other materials. Its structure is strong enough to need less of it to absorb blasting music, motors and everything else. It could eventually be used as an insulator in everything from furniture to electrical appliances to clothes.

Fraunhofer UMSICHT in Oberhausen, Germany is working wth Fraunhofer IBP to develop the mushroom plugs. 

"We started the material research in our Makerspace. This gave and still gives us the opportunity to combine different technologies, which brought us to the idea of 3D-printing biobased materials," Fraunhofer UMSICHT project manager Julia Krayer told SYFY WIRE. "The most important step in the whole process is the development of the recipe for the paste. You also need to select the right kind of fungi and determine the parameters for the 3D-printers, and later, the requirements for sound absorbers."

Whether it’s your neighbor’s radio cranked up to eleven or the incessant symphony of rush-hour traffic, ambient sound actually does affect your health. There isn’t much we can currently do about it. Soundproofing materials that currently exist are mostly synthetic mineral fibers or foams that don’t absorb sound that well and are usually not recyclable or sustainable. Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT is now collaborating with the Franunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP to see how they can merge mycelium with other organic materials and 3D-print it into earplugs and other things you would probably never associate fungus with.

 

Mycelium is the larger underlying body for fungi that may or may not spawn mushrooms. If a mushroom could be compared to a tree, then mycelium would be the tree’s vast subsurface network of roots. Fungi spread spores everywhere. These spores eventually land somewhere and germinate into what will turn into mycelium. The mycelium continues to grow by releasing enzymes from the tips of its hyphae, which are long filaments that branch out undergorund much like tree roots do, though they look more like spiderwebs.

There is such an interest in taking myco-materials to Mars because you don’t need much to start with, meaning next to no added weight on the payload except the minimal nutrients needed to grow them. These materials are surprisingly strong in their final state. Habitats created from them will absorb the killer radiation that strikes the Red Planet to keep it from getting to the astronauts inside. The same thinking is behind using such materials as sound absorbers. When mycelium is mixed with other eco-friendly materials like wood, straw and food waste, what comes out of the 3D printer is solid because it has hyphae spread everywhere. It is then heated in a kiln to kill the fungus that would otherwise keep growing almost infinitely.

"I recognize a huge interest in mycelium-materials in the whole building sector, on Earth and beyond" Krayer said. "I think that's a promising field for these kinds of materials, because of the need to develop sustainable building materials. With the sound absorbers, we're still in the beginning of this era of new biobased materials. Biotechnology is developing so fast that I'm sure we will see new scopes in the near future."

What comes out of this process is a substance that has open cell walls that absorb sound. 3D printing actually makes the material even more effective because it can be programmed to give the sound-absorbing material a porous structure that will keep being advanced as the research teams continue to develop it. Not only will this material be renewable, but it is expected to outperform whatever we rely on to keep noise at a minimum right now. Earplugs and insulating materials made of mycelium is more effective at keeping the sounds of screaming kids, roaring leaf blowers and whatever the neighbors are doing where they belong.

This isn’t it for myco-materials. Besides Mars, they are also headed to everything from furniture and electoral appliances to plastics and even faux leather.

"Most of the current sound absorbers are made of petroleum-based plastics," "The market of biobased sound absorbers is still small," Krayer said. "We're using as many plant-based waste materials and byproducts as possible to reduce costs, but developing new materials is a challenge, and we're still in the research stage and have to optimize our process."