Leather alternative made of fungi

Thursday, 28 November, 2019


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Researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are using fungal mycelium to produce a skin-like material that could serve as an alternative to leather and be suitable for industrial production.

Animal skin is a useful material, but the tanning process of leather causes significant chromium emissions that are damaging to the environment and human health. Synthetic leathers also burden the environment and fail to match the quality and durability of animal leather. Therefore, new bio-based replacement materials are being sought.

For centuries, fungi and polypores have been used for making skin-like fabrics and accessories in Europe. Designers and researchers are now reviving this tradition to find sustainable alternatives to replace leather.

“VTT has been studying fungi and other microbes and their use in industrial biotechnology for quite a while,” said VTT Senior Scientist Géza Szilvay. “In laboratory conditions, fungal mycelium can be used to rapidly produce skin-like material with quite similar feel and tensile strength as animal skin.”

Some items made of fungus-based leather are already being produced for commercial markets. However, the bottleneck lies in industrial-scale production.

“We have focused on scalable bioproduction methods and the use of industrial processes in the production of our material,” Szilvay said. “The results have been promising.”

The production process of fungus-based leather represents circular economy at its best: organic waste can be used as raw material for synthetic leather. Fungal mycelium can produce skin-like material out of, for example, food waste.

VTT will continue to develop the properties of fungus-based leather. According to Szilvay, “Next, we want to add new properties to the material and improve, for example, its wear resistance with the help of biotechnology. We have already made materials out of fungal mycelium that produce new kinds of biopolymers within the material.”

The material has been developed as part of VTT’s iBEX 2019 program — a runway for innovations that will change the world, currently including 11 research projects. The projects tackle some of the great global challenges and seek radical solutions to them in collaboration with the industry and the surrounding society.

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