In an interview: Julia Krayer from Fraunhofer UMSICHT about mushrooms as sustainable materials

Matching the zdi annual theme Sustainable energy management The interview with Julia Krayer, bio-designer and research associate at the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT, is about the sustainable construction and material "mushroom". The qualified designer has been researching together with her colleague Lina Vieres since 2019 in the project "FungiFacturing” on how materials made from fungi and plant fibers can be used as sound absorbers, for example. Also in the Dortmund FabLab decentralized, which is operated by Fraunhofer UMSICHT, Julia Krayer works with the material mushroom. In an interview, she spoke to us about the special challenges and properties of these sustainable materials and how these special features can be made accessible to the general public in terms of knowledge transfer.

You can also find the interview on our YouTube channel @zdi.NRW

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Many roads lead to MINT

Gwendolyn: You told me that you and your colleague Lina Vieres regularly take part in campaigns for the Science Year or Girls Day. Was there an event like this for you or an experience in your youth that led you on the way to a STEM profession? did you have a role model

Julia: I actually didn't take the classic, direct route to a STEM profession. I first studied fashion design and then did my master's degree in conceptual design, i.e. creative direction. I ended up in transdisciplinary design through the graduate program at the Folkwang University of the Arts. There I worked on how to grow materials based on biological processes. I had already taken the biology advanced course at school and my interest in biology was still there. I also enjoy experimental work and a good level of curiosity. That's how I ended up as a student assistant in the FabLab Dezentrale in Dortmund, which is operated by Fraunhofer UMSICHT. I wanted to stay there afterwards and so I slipped into this STEM area.

Gwendolyn: So you had a rather winding path into the STEM field! How well do the two sides that you combine professionally fit together?

Julia: Totally good for me. It's also interesting because you suddenly meet people who speak a completely different language. That's why we like to use designers in science communication, because a design degree teaches you to quickly familiarize yourself with new topics. This ability is particularly valuable in science communication, because it is about knowing and understanding the target group, but also about understanding the people from whom the information comes. They then act as a sort of translator.

MINT is for everyone

Gwendolyn: Is there a special message when it comes to making offers for girls and young women that you are happy to share?

Julia: It is important to me that we can all do everything. On Girls Day I once had a girl in my group. She was by far the youngest among the participants. At the same time, she was the biggest power woman of all, who said directly: "Girls can do anything!". She had real power and I really admired her for manifesting this attitude at such a young age.

FungiFacturing – Mushrooms as material

Gwendolyn: Let's talk about mushrooms! Can you tell us something about what the FungiFacturing project is about and what is so special about the material mushroom? I would say that it is still more of an exotic material among materials.

Julia: I'll start at the very beginning: the mushrooms that we know and have on our plates are the fruiting bodies. So what the fungus forms in order to reproduce. The actual organism, the fungal mycelium, is what grows in the soil or in the wood of trees. You might see it when you pick up a piece of wood in the forest and find a fine, white mesh. This mycelium is the material we work with.

It has the great property that it can bind plant fibers together. The tree fungi we work with can break down lignocellulose. This is the component of plants that makes them hard and, for example, allows wood to lignify. The mushroom mycelium releases enzymes to the outside, with which it digests these strong substances. This gives us the opportunity, for example, to use residues from the agricultural industry or sawdust. The fungi then grow through these and after drying you have a very stable material, you could say biological polystyrene.

The photo shows an organic structure in the 3D printer
Image source: ©Fraunhofer UMSICHT

In the FungiFacturing project, we looked at how this material can be used for acoustics. We have found that porous structures are created that can be used to absorb sound. At the same time, we looked at how to make the material 3D printable. Because we hoped that we could impress more pores during printing, which would improve the sound absorption.

Diverse possible applications

Gwendolyn: Is this still being tested or are some procedures already in use?

Julia: The project is completed. We found that the paste we developed for 3D printing was not 3% suitable for the use case we wanted. However, we have found other materials that are suitable for this application. We are currently further investigating the properties of the XNUMXD-printable paste made from mushroom material. For example, it is water-repellent and very stable. We are also investigating how different materials affect these properties. Because it makes a difference whether we use small wood chips or large straw fibers for the paste. We can create many different material properties and we try to find out which properties we can achieve and which fields of application result from them.

The photograph shows seven large honeycomb-shaped objects made of fungal material suspended from a glass partition in a room.
©Fraunhofer Prudence
The photo shows a close-up of the large mushroom test objects.
©Fraunhofer Prudence

We also get an incredible number of inquiries from different sectors and have lots of ideas ourselves, from sound absorbers to furniture (we have a project on this together with students from Folkwang University) to floor coverings. Since the material is still so new, the applications and interest in the mushroom material are very high. In addition, it is a bio-based material that consists of residues and is therefore in great demand.

Image source: ©Fraunhofer UMSICHT

Gwendolyn: And from the design perspective: Is this a material that is more likely to be used and that you don't see at all, or can it also have an influence on the design?

Julia: It can be used as a filler, but you can also play with the material's very own look. The objects are overgrown with fibers and have a completely natural structure. That is what makes each part unique. On the other hand, this is exactly a challenge: If you need products for a specific application that always have to be the same and comparable, then this individuality is rather difficult.

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Material Mushroom to touch

Gwendolyn: Let's come to the subject of science transfer. I read that you offered workshops. How did you go about it?

Julia: It was important to us that the participants not only learn the facts and key data, which are of course also interesting, but that the material has the opportunity to show itself. That's why we took a somewhat experimental approach, as we know from our FabLab experience. We gave people the opportunity to test the material at different stations. You could touch it and get to know the strength and feel. There was an opportunity to light the material, see how it reacts in water, how it smells and so on. Because through this touching and the possibility that the material can show itself, a lot happens in people's heads.

The photo shows two hands holding a piece of mushroom material and testing the feel.
©Fraunhofer Prudence
The photograph shows a piece of fungal material held over the flame of a candle. Behind it is a glass bowl with sand, in which there is another, already charred piece of mushroom material.
©Fraunhofer Prudence
The photo shows a glass bowl of water into which a hand dips a piece of fungal material.
©Fraunhofer Prudence
The photo shows different shapes of mushroom material lined up on a table.
©Fraunhofer Prudence

Image source: ©Fraunhofer UMSICHT

Gwendolyn: So that you can then grasp the material with all your senses, I understand. Can you also say something about the decentralized office in Dortmund? Do you think that places like FabLabs and Makerspaces are needed to provide exactly this kind of science transfer?

Julia: Absolutely yes! Decentralization is currently undergoing change. We're moving away from the makerspace we've been to what we call the "glass lab." Because we want to focus much more on the topic of materials there, but we want to continue to be a place of participation, of having a say and of exchange. We don't believe in this unidirectional transfer of knowledge, but are aware that a lot is also played back by the participants. Especially when it comes to complicated topics and where things have to be weighed up, it is important for us to feed back the opinions, concerns and hopes of the participants to science.

Gwendolyn: Thank you very much for the interesting interview!

Julia: I thank you too!

zdi.NRW and science transfer

The task of making current research and complex topics accessible to a diverse spectrum of people is also the task of the joint offensive zdi.NRW. In the zdi courses and zdi student laboratories, MINT topics are prepared for different age groups, from early childhood education to upper secondary level. Here, too, it is evident that practical relevance and “hands-on science” are the key points that are regularly mentioned as important success factors. Whether at competitionsin holiday courses or in the offers of zdi students: indoor laboratories shows: The more tangible the content is, the better it is understood and has a lasting effect.

Sustainable energy management is not only zdi's topic of the year. Topics such as the production of renewable energies have long been present as course content in the zdi community. In order to be up-to-date and relevant in the courses, it is also necessary to keep up to date with new technologies, production methods and materials. As a bio-based material and also made from waste materials, fungal-based materials can play an increasingly important role in sustainable construction and manufacturing in the future, similar to bio-based plastics, which we have already reported on. It remains to be seen to what extent these sustainable materials can play a role as learning media in extracurricular MINT education.

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