Steelcase, Students, and Sustainability

By Kaitlyn Aholt and Alicia Crawford- Materials Chemistry at Steelcase

This past March, Steelcase’s Materials Chemistry team (part of Global Environmental Sustainability team) took a trip out to Cherry Creek Elementary in Lowell, Michigan to spend the morning with Mr. Audia’s 4th grade science class. He periodically brings in guest speakers to talk about their careers and give his students an idea of the many different paths they could choose in life. What an awesome 4th grade teacher, right?

We spoke about our Materials Chemistry work from an innovation perspective by showing photos of people we believe to be innovators and having the students guess who was in each image. Thankfully, everyone knew Thomas Edison. There was also one die-hard Apple fan who picked out Steve Jobs, but most students couldn’t guess why he was an innovator. When we explained that he innovated the way people listened to music by inventing the iPod, nearly making CDs obsolete, one student asked, What’s a CD? Come to find out, no one in the class even knew what a CD was anymore… man we felt old! And of course, every hand shot up when we showed Taylor Swift!

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Finally, we showed a picture of Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, co-founders of Ecovative Design. Then we conducted a hands-on experiment with the Ecovative GIY “Grow It Yourself” Mushroom Material kits to allow the students to see how these two were innovators. Ecovative uses agricultural byproducts in combination with the root structure of mushrooms, called mycelium, to grow Earth friendly materials like packaging and engineered woods.

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Each student had the opportunity to get their hands on the raw material and then create their own toys with it.

They started off with bags of dehydrated material in front them. After adding water and flour, the students watched over the next few days as the mycelium came back to life and grew out to be white and strong around the corn stalks and husks in the bag. Once fully white, they took this material, crumbled it up into small pieces with their hands, and put it into little duck molds!

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They set the ducks on a shelf and observed the material over the next few days.

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Each day, the ducks turned more and more white because the mycelium was growing and binding all the loose particles together! Mycelium is similar to a natural glue or resin.

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The “quackers,” as Mr. Audia refers to them, are now decomposing in a glass jar filled with worms, bacteria, and moisture so the kids can see how these materials breakdown over time.

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Through this experiment, the kids were able to discover the power of innovation and learn about those who strive to innovate. They were able to have fun with science and see how something as simple as mushrooms can change the way we look at materials. It is our hope that experiments like these can continue to inspire the youth of today and produce future innovators.

A Biodegradable Urn, Grown by Florian Gregor

Hi everyone! My name is Florian Gregor, I am 24 years old and from Salzburg, Austria. I have been studying Forest Products Technology and Timber Constructions at the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg. In my bachelor degree course we have been working a lot with wood materials. Due to the University I studied at, I am constantly confronted with the topic of sustainability. This year I was in a bachelor project where we had to plan a new Funeral Hall for a neighboring village. During this project we had to research about the funerary culture of different religions. Then we had to choose a topic for our bachelor thesis, which was connected to our project. I was searching for ideas to construct biodegradable and ecological friendly burial containers.

From the beginning, it was clear to me that the urn had to be sustainable since it will be buried. In the process of finding a way to make the urn as sustainable as possible, I stumbled upon Ecovative Design and their unique Mushroom Material. From that moment on I knew this was what I was looking for. At first I ordered 3 GIY (Grow it Yourself) bags from Ecovative. As the bags arrived, I started to rehydrate the material with water and flour.

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Everyday I checked my GIY bags to see if anything was happening. As I saw the first white mycelium strings I was just completely astonished and I thought, “this project can really work.”

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Then I made two negative molds, one for the urn itself and one for its lid in which the Mushroom Material could grow. For the mold I used a thermoplastic material, which I processed using a CNC machine. In each of the two molds I had to drill holes into the top cover to create airflow- this is necessary for the growing process.

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After finishing the molds and six days of waiting (this was the time it took the dehydrated material to rehydrate), I had to tear up the white spongy mass to make it fit into my molds. I had to make sure that the molds were sterile, to prevent the growth of any other type of fungus. Because of that, I cleaned everything thoroughly with ethanol. It took another seven days before I was able to take the molds apart.

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In that moment I really trembled with excitement, my hands were shaking and I was completely nervous – BUT it worked out so well. Then the time came for the most important and tricky part of the process: I had to weigh the urn in its wet state, calculate and dry the mushroom urn down to 35% of its original weight. At this point the growing process of the mushroom is fully stopped.

And here is the first urn prototype made with love:

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So, as you can see the Mushroom Material works perfectly for modeling a biodegradable urn. Although there is room for improvement, such as decreasing the porosity of the urns surface, I am convinced that this could be a realistic solution for the rapidly increasing problem of space. It is cheap, biodegradable, ecofriendly and its production is not too complicated.

– Florian Gregor, BSc

Visit http://giy.ecovativedesign.com to find out how you can make your Earth friendly project a reality!