Foundation research

Penn State Interdisciplinary Team Receives SOM Foundation Research Award | Pennsylvania State University (Penn State)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — An interdisciplinary team of Penn State researchers has been awarded $40,000 as the recipient of the 2021 Skidmore Owings & Merrill Foundation (SOM) Research Award for a project that explores mycelium-based and knitted textiles to form a durable building material.

Mycelium is part of the fungi kingdom and is the network of threads, called hyphae, from which fungi grow.

The title of the team’s winning proposal is titled “MycoKnit: Growing Mycelium-Based Composites on Knitted Textiles for Large-Scale Biodegradable Architectural Structures.”

The research is led by co-principal investigators Felicia Davisassociate professor of architecture and director of the Computational Textiles Laboratory (SOFTLAB) within the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing (SCDC)and Benay Gursoyassistant professor of architecture and director of the Form and Matter Laboratory (ForMat) at the SCDC.

Farzaneh Oghazian and Ali Ghazvinian, doctoral students in design computing architecture within the Stuckeman School; John Pecchia, associate research professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology and director of the Center for Fungal Research; and Andre West, associate professor and director of the Zeis Knitting Lab at North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles, round out the research team.

According to Davis, funds from the SOM award will be used to provide research stipends for the summer. The grant will also provide tools for mycelium cultivation and knitting time for a new research-led studio called “MycoKnit,” which will be available to Penn State students in the fall of 2022.

The creation of “MycoKnit” as a concept began through a collaboration between the SOFTLAB in Davis and the ForMat Lab in Gürsoy.

Davis and Oghazian, a researcher at SOFTLAB, had been researching knitted patterns and materials for the knitted tension structures. Oghazian developed numerical algorithms and machine learning tools to simulate the shape and behaviors of knitted tension structures. West worked with Davis and Oghazian to produce industrially fabricated knit samples to test work intensification for large-scale tension structures.

Penn State students Art Education graduate student Ian Danner and Materials Science undergraduate student Sophia Craparo help create hand-knit prototypes and structures for the MycoKnit’s knit-based fabric.

ForMat Lab researcher Ghazvinian worked with Gürsoy on mycelium-based composites and how they can be used in building structures. Pecchia worked alongside researchers from the ForMat laboratory to cultivate the mycelium-based composites.

“This collaboration will allow us to develop design and manufacturing workflows for ‘MycoKnit,’ which are lightweight, biodegradable composite structures,” Davis explained. “The two materials – the knitted fabric and the mycelium – work together to form a tightly knit composite that experiences tension from the knitted base and compression from the dried fungus mycelium. The combination can make a strong, lightweight building material.

The two materials, which were created individually by SOFTLAB and ForMat Lab, respectively, work together to create a lightweight material for biodegradable architectural structures.

“In this research, we will experiment with growing mycelium-based composites on knitted textiles with organic yarns,” Gürsoy said. “The mycelium will break down and bind these threads together as it grows, creating a composite system that benefits from both the compressive strength of the mycelium and the tensile strength of textiles.”

According to Gürsoy, Mycoknit offers great environmental advantages over conventional materials such as concrete and steel, which account for more than 20% of global carbon emissions. She went on to explain that 40% of consumer waste comes from construction and demolition.

“Therefore, there is a need to find sustainable alternatives for building materials with low embodied energy and therefore low carbon footprint; that are biodegradable and produce no or less construction waste that goes to landfills; and that are renewable, so they don’t rely on limited resources,” Gursoy said. “Although the use of mycelium-based composites in construction is still in its infancy and experimental, these materials offer great environmental benefits.”

The collaboration between the experimental materials of the two laboratories will benefit the research of both teams. According to Gürsoy, the architectural community is increasingly interested in sustainable and biodegradable materials, especially mycelium, and this new research will be of great interest to communities.

“In recent years, designers and academics have started thinking outside the box to find better options and minimize waste,” Ghazvinian explained. “People have started using waste-based building materials like cardboard, salvaged materials like skis, and other bio-based materials like seaweed and coral-based materials.”

“Using something hybrid with knits and mycelium, which is both waste-based and organic, helps this field continue to grow,” he concluded.

Founded in 1979, the SOM Foundation strives to advance the ability of the design profession to address some of society’s key issues by bringing together and supporting groups and individuals. Its research prize is awarded annually to two interdisciplinary faculty-led teams in the United States for original research that contributes to a topic defined by the SOM Foundation. The topic of the 2021 SOM Foundation Research Award was “Envisioning Responsible Relationships with Materiality”.

Find out more via the SOM Foundation website.