18/12/2019 – News / Innovation / Environment / Leather / Fungal Mycelium / Finland

Finnish researchers develop alternative leather from fungi

Finnish researchers develop aternative l

VTT has produced an alternative to leather – composed from fungal mycelium. Now, the Finnish research institute is looking to scale up its manufacturing process of the durable and sustainable material.

Animal skin is an excellent material, but the tanning process of leather causes significant chromium emissions that are damaging to both the environment and human health. Synthetic leathers likewise burden the environment as well as failing to match the quality and durability of animal leather. New bio-based replacement materials are therefore sought for leather. In response, state-backed Finnish research institute VTT is using fungal mycelium to produce skin-like material that would be suited for industrial production.


There’s so mushroom in this faux-leather handbag


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,” advised Senior Scientist Géza Szilvay from VTT. “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 bio-production methods and the use of industrial processes in the production of our material. The results have been promising,” reported Szilvay.


Organic waste, transformed through biotechnology


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. “Next, we want to add new properties to the material and improve, for example, its wear resistance with the help of biotechnology,” informs Szilvay. “We have already made materials out of fungal mycelium that produce new kind of biopolymers within the material.”


iBEX programme solves global challenges


The new material has been developed as part of VTT’s iBEX 2019 programme. The programme is an example of a new way of making applied research more solution-oriented, and it currently includes 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. The iBEX programme aims to be a runway for innovations that will change the world. In November 2019, Plant Breath – a research project surrounding creation of a breathalyser test for plants to increase growth and productivity, developed under the iBEX programme – won the EUR 100,000 prize in the final of the Slush and Skolar Research Ideas Pitch Contest.

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