What if we could make a computer chip out of mushrooms? While it may not be the first question that springs to mind around electronic enhancement, it turns out that using fungi as a functional substrate for integrated circuits (ICs) is actually a great idea.
Let’s shine some light on these dark-loving, spore-bearing, fruity fungus bodies and how they might inspire new technology development.
Waste Not, Want Not
Electronic devices are useful and ubiquitous, but they’re not meant to last. According to the WEEE Forum, approximately 5.3 billion mobile phones were trashed or stashed away in 2022, never to be used again. This is despite the fact that they contain valuable mineral components, such as gold, silver and palladium and many of their plastic parts could take more than 1,000 years to fully decompose.
If that isn’t bad enough, consider that some smartphones and electronic devices have actually been built with “planned obsolescence” in mind. Have you ever noticed that, after a few years, your phone doesn’t hold a charge as well or seems to be slowing down? You might think you’ve just been too hard on it, but these failing functions could be a feature, not a bug, designed to convince you it’s time for an upgrade.
With companies now facing global lawsuits over this practice, it’s more than a simple conspiracy theory. Whatever the underlying reason, however, the outcome is the same: phones, smartwatches, tablets and countless other devices are failing more often than ever, leading to a significant spike in electronic waste. As a result, interest is growing in alternatives capable of breaking down more quickly. That’s where mushrooms come in.
From Mushrooms to MycelioTronics
Mushroom skin may offer a biodegradable alternative to computer chip creation. Cleverly dubbed “MycelioTronics” by its creators, manufactured mushroom chips have the dual advantage of great electrical conduction and the ability to break down after use.
While there have been previous attempts to make the move from plastic to mushroom-based ICs, the results were what you probably imagined when you first thought about mushroom skin electronics: bulky and ineffective. Researchers from Johannes Kepler University, however, have taken a more minimal approach to mushroom manufacturing.
Their fungus of choice was Ganoderma lucidum, which is found in temperate climates on dead hardwood trees. To create the skin, the research team inoculated moist beech wood shavings with fungi spores and then covered the spores with a polyethylene separator grid and stored the grids at 25 °C. Once sufficient skin growth occurred, the separator was ripped off and the mushroom skin peeled back from the beech wood.
Next came the drying and compression phase, followed by the physical vapor deposition of thin gold and copper layers on the skin, which were then laser ablated to create circuit pathways. The research yielded three skin phases: young, medium and mature. All three phases were stable up to 250 °C, making them a good base for processes such as soldering.
They also performed well in terms of current densities and specific resistance. For example, News-Medical.Net notes that the young skin demonstrated current densities up to 333 A mm-2, while the medium skin achieved a specific resistance of 54.3 ± 19.8 ohm-cm, making it comparable to current Li-ion battery separators. All told, the team produced mycelium-based batteries, a humidity and proximity sensor and a Bluetooth communication module.
We Are the Champignons
What do these mushroom moves mean for new technology development and computer chip design? First is the ability of these fungi to fundamentally break down after use. Once surface-mounted components were removed using heat guns or solder irons, the champignon-based circuit boards could be tossed into a household compost bin. Even better, they lost 93% of their dry mass within 11 days, and the remainder was indistinguishable from standard soil.
According to Physics World, mushroom skin ICs were also able to withstand approximately 2,000 bending cycles before metal films began to crack and warp, meaning they could be shaped multiple times to suit new applications. In addition, MycelioTronics come with the massive benefit of mushroom abundance. As some of the most persistent plants on the planet, fungi are capable of growing just about anywhere with minimal maintenance, and there’s no shortage of fungible options worldwide. This means the material is not only bio-friendly but easy to find, making it a win-win scenario for the environment.
The caveat? For now, mushroom-molded chips are in the minority. It’s one thing to demonstrate this process as a proof-of-concept — it’s another to scale substrate operations from lab-made to manufacturing line volumes.
Still, the shift from plastic products to mushroom modalities is a step forward all around. While fungi frameworks may not be in the next device you buy, expect a significant sprout-up from this sustainable tech in the near future.
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