From underneath the roads to inside our homes, insulation is everywhere in Alaska. But traditional foam board is energy intensive to produce and often ends up as plastic litter in oceans and waterways. A group of researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage are working to develop an environmentally friendly alternative.
Professor Philippe Amstislavski stands in front of a group of students from the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program.
“This is all experimental, nobody has ever done this,” he says. “We didn’t have any clue how this would work.”
The high-schoolers have spent weeks in the lab this summer, designing molds and filling them with a coarse, grey mixture. They’re finally getting the chance to see how their experiments turned out.
The objects are light and foam-like, some are a little crumbly, while others keep their structure as they’re passed around the room for everyone to admire. They all have one thing in common; they were grown from an unlikely local substance- mushrooms.
“We have a long history in the north of using mushrooms for food, medicine- now we’re experimenting with using them for insulation,” Amstislavski said.
Over the past year and a half, Amstislavski and his team at UAA have been developing a new type of insulation, designed to overcome the environmental issues caused by conventional foam products on the market today.
“We have problems with particulates in our waterways and our oceans,” he said. “Pink board or blue board that we use for insulation is typically made out of oil-derived polymers that are non-biodegradable.”
The researchers instead use a mix of local fungus cultures, sawdust, and other natural ingredients to grow their own bio-material blocks in the lab. When Amstislavski shares his research with friends and colleagues, they’re often skeptical.
“The first question we always get- Is this going to kill me if I touch it?” He said. “It’s not toxic. It’s not going to jump on you and try to take over your body.”
The researchers still have a lot of questions to answer when it comes to determining if the new bio-material will be a viable alternative to foam insulation. They need to test whether it can handle freezing and thawing. And make sure it won’t get waterlogged.
Back in the lab, Anchorage high school student Charitie Ropati, from ANSEP, is measuring her own recently grown insulation block, designed to be used in future home construction. She’s impressed.
“I didn’t know that living organisms could be used to build these kind of things,” she said. “I was like, wow, I could actually use this kind of stuff.”
Ropati isn’t the only one who sees potential in the bio-material. Amstislavski and his partner have been invited to Washington D.C. to showcase their insulation at a national competition later this month.