Environmental sustainability intern grows a mushroom canoe

Girl in canoe made of fungi Photo by Megan Ayers

There’s perhaps no better way to explore Canada’s lakes and rivers than by canoe. They are a quiet, portable, and family-friendly mode of transportation. With no motor and no gas can to fill, they’re also good for the environment. 

Katy Ayers, an environmental sustainability intern with Central Community College in Columbus, Nebraska, has pushed how eco-friendly a canoe can be by growing her own “living canoe” out of mycelium, the vegetative body of a fungus. The vessel, nicknamed “Myconoe”, shows that fungus can be used as a natural building material with environmental benefits. “I grew up on a lake here in Nebraska. We had to move away from the lake and give up the canoe and paddleboat, and I’ve missed it ever since,” says Ayers.

Inspired by the 2013 documentary “Super Fungi” about the innovative ways people use mushrooms to tackle environmental problems, the college student decided to grow her own eight-foot vessel. The fungus species commonly used in biofabrication is the Reishi mushroom, or Ganoderma lucidum. Ayers says the fungus is a shipwright’s dream: fireproof, waterproof, antimicrobial, antistatic, and very buoyant.

Canoe made of fungi
Photo courtesy of Katy Ayers

Ayers teamed up with Nebraska Mushroom, a company on Grand Island, to construct Myconoe. She first built a wood steamer and made a skeleton for the canoe out of oak lattice. The skeleton was covered in plastic, and she constructed a mold for the canoe out of papier maché. She then suspended the mold and skeleton structure in a hammock. The mold was stuffed ground pallet wood with mycelium already grown into it. She describes the material as “similar to sawdust.”

It only took one week for the fungus to grow so much that it was pushing its way out of the mold. Ayers removed the mold from the sling, gave the canoe one more week to grow on the ground, and then dried it.

The drying process forces the fungus into dormancy. Ayers says there is a way to heat the material in a way that kills the fungus and creates a longer lasting product, but she chose to forgo this step in order to preserve her boat as a living organism.

The living canoe feels soft to the touch like animal leather, says Ayers. And because the canoe is still alive, “when I paddle and come back it actually grows more mushrooms,” she says.

Upkeep for the canoe is simple. After paddling, the canoe is left to dry in the sun so that UV rays can kill off any mold. Ayers notes that mushrooms have been shown to degrade pollutants like oil and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, so paddling a fungus canoe may also have positive effects on the aquatic environment. “By transitioning our materials to a fungus-base, we can make a big difference in our impact on the world.”

Now it’s time to toughen up your canoe paddle and hit the water.

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