November 6, 2013

Project Team Works to Develop Eco-Friendly Styrofoam Substitute

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Correction appended

Students no longer have to feel guilty while drinking from a styrofoam cup, now that a Cornell project team has paired up with a company to create a more environmentally friendly alternative.

The Cornell University Genetically Engineered Machines won an award this weekend for its work on Organofoam, a set of genetic parts that has allowed the team to improve a styrofoam substitute produced by the company Ecovative Design. The biodegradable “mushroom packaging” Ecovative Design has created is made up of a combination of dead plant matter and mycelium.

While a styrofoam cup can take more than 500 years to break down, Ecovative’s styrofoam substitute can decompose within 30 days, according to the project team’s website. But the fungi Ecovative uses to produce its styrofoam substitute proved to be vulnerable to mold contamination.

After weeks of research, the Genetically Engineered Machines team was able to partially address the issue of mold contamination through creating Organofoam, a genetic tool that includes an antifungal protein that stops the most common types of mold from growing.

Sureka said that although alternatives to styrofoam already exist, they are not practical for various reasons.

“There’s something that’s like milk-based packaging … [but] one of the main uses of styrofoam is obviously for food storage, and it can’t handle temperatures above the boiling point of water at all,” she said.

Other people have tried using paper as a potential alternative to styrofoam, but even that has drawbacks, Sureka said.

“Paper really is only helpful if it’s recycled, but the truth is that paper is often not recycled. If it is in the trash and it’s combusted, it’s almost as harmful as [styrofoam].”

The team was given an award in part because Organofoam has a practical impact on sustainable practices that its competitors lacked, according to Prof. Xiling Shen, biomedical engineering, the team’s faculty advisor.

“Look[ing] at the competition, some teams’ … projects are very conceptual — very futuristic. And then you go on the results side and nothing much was done,” Shen said, adding that Cornell’s projects reflect that “we’re not doing something … just intellectually fun.”

The team spent all summer exploring this solution and solidifying their project design, a process that required students to work at least 20 hours a week, according to team member Mac Sennett ’15.

Ecovative Design’s final product is made from two feedstocks: “fungi that are plant-pathogenic and agricultural waste, or things like corn husks or dry wheat or stalks of various plants,” Sureka said.

The plant matter contains cellulose and lignin, the two primary structural components of plants. The fungus degrades the lignin, which helps keep mushroom packaging together, according to Sureka.

Correction: This article incorrectly said the Genetically Engineered Machines won an award for creating Organofoam. In fact, the team was recognized for creating modifications to Organofoam, which was engineered by a company called Evocative Design.