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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

The World of Plants – Materials for our Future

I saw an article in the New York Times about how a fashion fabric company is using the mycelium from mushrooms to make a fabric that has the look and feel of leather (1).  They call this stuff vegan leather, and it is actually a composite material.  It was created by an artist based in the Bay Area working with a researcher from UC Berkeley – Sophia Wang. 

This guy got some spores from local farmers in the early 2000’s, coaxed them into growing a material akin to medium density fiber board (another composite material made using forest products waste – i.e. cellulose and lignin).  And he took it to a show in 2007 where he met Sophia who was working on her Ph.D. at the time.


These two – Bill Morris and Sophia Wang – have built a company based on this stuff that they call MycoWorks.  And they came up with the product that you see in the lead pic in this post called Reishi which is apparently the Japanese name for the genus of mushrooms. 

Since this composites newsletter is going to be about how plants are the basis of the materials for humanity’s future, what better to talk about than something that traditionally comes from the hide of an animal that is nevertheless made from plants.  That’s why I thought that I would start off with this because even the stuff that we wear every day will eventually need to be made sustainably and be able to be returned to Mother Nature for her to grow new plants when we are done using it.

This is as true for composite materials as it is for the fabrics we wear, the materials we use to build our houses and buildings, our cars, trucks and buses, and pretty much everything else that you can think of.  All of these materials either need to be easily recyclable into new products – think steel, aluminum, and most other common metals – or taken apart and remade into new products while retaining the original properties of the materials.  Steel reinforced concrete is a good example of this.  It is fairly easy to take apart the concrete from the steel, remelt the steel, and grind up the concrete to use to make new concrete.  Those processes already exist. 

But, what about this “vegan leather” stuff.  There is an article in Stylist from the UK that talks at length about this stuff (2).  Apparently it has caught on and the product made here in the Bay Area is not the only plant-based leather fabric.  There is a company in the UK – Biophilica – that has been in the business of making this plant-based leather for several years, and has seen nearly a 70% year on year increase in queries from traditionally leather-based manufacturers – shoes, purses, etc. – for their products.  One such company, Ganni, a Danish contemporary fashion brand, decided in 2022 to phase out all of their leather fashion goods – purses, shoes and the like – in favor of plant based leather.  And in 2024, they will no longer introduce actual leather products. 


That’s enough about vegan leather.  What about composites.  What’s new in the natural



composites world and plant-based fibers and resins.  There is an organization in the UK and Australia – AZO Materials – that provides publications specifically tailored to material scientists, sort of a who’s who of material science and what is going on – as in trends and things to watch out for.  In 2022 they took a “Closer Look at Plant-Based Composites” (3) and found some very interesting things.  I believe I used one of their images in a previous post, but just to refresh everyone’s memory, here it is again.  It is a wonderful image depicting a circular economy for plants. 

In that article they lead off with a note that recently a team from MIT engineered a composite using a plant-based polymer resin and cellulose nanocrystals – in other words completely plant-based composite.  And in 2021 this same article states that a composite nacelle for an offshore wind turbine made using natural fiber was installed by Dutch shipbuilders in the Harbor of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. 

The article goes on to say much the same thing that I have been advocating and reporting on here in this space for several months, that we need a new approach to materials manufacturing – especially for our composite materials.  There is a demand that is increasing at a rapid rate for natural or plant-based composites because both fibers and resins in traditional composites have come under scrutiny just in the last few years for their enormous carbon footprint.  Since both fibers and resins, as well as most processing to make fibers and resins is based in the use of petroleum, and also since the COP meetings have repeatedly produced reports stating that the entire world needs to ween itself off of the use of petroleum, advanced materials like composites become front and center in the debate.

Fortunately, one of the most prevalent useful materials for making a plant-based composite – cellulose – is also the most abundant natural material in the world.  All plants make it because it is the primary structure of all plant cells.  Even algae is a good source of cellulose nanocrystals, and algae grows more rapidly than any other plant.  If you remember last week’s post, you will remember that algae is the key to making sustainable materials, as well as key to making soil amendments to reclaim the dead soil that has been killed by our industrial agriculture. 

Interestingly the material made by the MIT scientists is a solid that is light weight and stronger and tougher than bone, and harder than standard aluminum alloys.  It is also lighter



in weight than aluminum, so it could very well be a good candidate for making frames for cars, skins and spars for aircraft, and several other things that are now made using aluminum alloys.  And, once this product is scaled up it will inevitably be less expensive than aluminum.  This stuff is made of a high percentage of cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) in a plant-based polymer matrix, and can be 3D printed.  Here’s a pic of this stuff.  Doesn’t look like much until you see and hear what its properties are.

What about the largest use of composites – especially carbon fiber composites – in the industry today – wind turbines.  As of 2022, the composite nacelle in Rotterdam on an offshore wind turbine was the only example of a plant-based composite being used on a wind turbine.  This nacelle was, however, rather large – 7.3 meters across, and it was mounted on a 600 kW wind turbine that was 44 meters in diameter – so a rather large turbine.  However, researchers all over the world have been working on designs and ideas for use of plant-based composites for wind turbines.  Folks at the National Renewable Energy Lab – NREL – used a bio-based polyester-like resin they called PECAN to make a wind turbine blade (3) and reported on it in 2023. 

Another development here in California, at UC Davis under Professor Valeria La Saponara, uses bamboo and the mycelium from mushrooms (interesting how mushrooms keep popping up in this post – sorry about the pun) to make a wind turbine blade (4).  La Saponara’s target audience is the Amazon and other equatorial rainforests where logging for things like balsa wood are stripping the rainforest and causing enormous problems with climate change.  The people in these areas are primarily in developing nations, and access to electricity is difficult to get at best.  Using materials like bamboo and mushroom roots (mycelium) is completely sustainable and these materials are locally available in these areas. 

Given that this material can be developed, and these developing nations can tap into a wind resource for their power needs, there will be no need to either cut down the forest or to import expensive petroleum products to run generators for their electricity needs.  And, another upside to this material is that it is completely sustainable.  At end of life, since the raw materials are plant-based and have a high carbon and nitrogen content, they can be ground up and used as soil amendments to grow new bamboo and new mushroom mycelium to make new wind turbine blades.  Or to make any other structural material that the people in that area need. 

That’s about enough for this week.  I hope everyone that reads these posts enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them.  As usual I will post this first on my website – www.nedpatton.com – as well as on LinkedIn.  And if anyone wants to provide comments to this, I welcome them with open arms.  Comments, criticisms, etc. are all quite welcome.  I really do want to engage in a conversation with all of you about composites because we can learn so much from each other as long as we share our own perspectives. 

I also wanted to add this week that I will be speaking at the SAMPE conference in Long Beach in May.  I’m going to be talking about the subject that I have a passion for – composites sustainability.  Maybe I can help shake up the industry a bit again, like what happened at the Carbon Fiber Conference in Salt Lake.  One can only hope.  Anyway, for anyone that is interested in materials and process engineering, SAMPE will be a great conference.  And they will have a really great exhibit as well. 

And, finally, I still need to plug my book, so here’s the plug.  The book pretty much covers the watershed in composites, starting with a brief history of composites, then introducing the Periodic Table and why Carbon is such an important and interesting element.  The book was published and made available last August, and is available both on Amazon and from McFarland Books – my publisher.  However, the best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  https://www.nedpatton.com/product-page/the-string-and-glue-of-our-world-signed-copy.  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in. 



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