Interdisciplinary Penn State team awarded SOM Foundation Research Prize

The base of the MycoKnit showing the yarn-knitted textiles on which mycelium-based composites will grow.
The base of "MycoKnit," showing the yarn-knitted textiles on which mycelium-based composites will grow. Knitted by Ian Danner.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – An interdisciplinary team of Penn State researchers was awarded $40,000 as a recipient of the Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) Foundation 2021 Research Prize for a project that explores mycelium-based and knitted textiles to form a sustainable building material.

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

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

The research is led by co-principal investigators Felecia Davis, associate professor of architecture and director of the Computational Textiles Lab (SOFTLAB) within the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing (SCDC), and Benay Gürsoy, assistant professor of architecture and director of the Form and Matter (ForMat) Lab in the SCDC.

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

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

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

Davis, and Oghazian, a researcher in the SOFTLAB, had been researching knitted patterns and materials for knitted tension structures. Oghazian has been developing digital algorithms and machine-learning tools to simulate the shape and behaviors of knitted tension structures. West has been working with Davis and Oghazian to produce industrially manufactured knitted samples to test scaling up the work for large-scale tension structures.

Penn State students Ian Danner, an arts education graduate student, and Sophia Craparo, a materials science undergraduate, are assisting with the creation of hand-machined, knitted prototypes and structures for the knitted-base fabric of the MycoKnit.

Ghazvinian, a researcher in the ForMat Lab, has been working with Gürsoy on mycelium-based composites and how they can be used in building structures. Pecchia has been working alongside ForMat lab researchers to cultivate the mycelium-based composites.

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

Both 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 be experimenting growing mycelium-based composites on textiles knitted with organic yarns,” said Gürsoy. “Mycelium will decompose and bind these yarns as it grows, creating a composite system that benefits from both the compressive strength of mycelium and tensile strength of the textiles.”

According to Gürsoy, Mycoknit offers great environmental benefits compared to 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 that have low-embodied energy and thus a reduced carbon footprint; that are biodegradable and produce no or less construction waste that goes to landfills; and that are renewable, so that they don't rely on limited resources,” said Gursoy. “Although the use of mycelium-based composites in construction is still in its infancy and is experimental, these materials offer great environmental benefits.”

The collaboration between the experimental materials from both labs will benefit both teams’ research. According to Gürsoy, there is a growing interest in the architectural community with sustainable and biodegradable materials, especially mycelium, and this new research will be of great interest to the communities.

“In recent years, designers and scholars started thinking outside the box to find better options and minimize waste,” explained Ghazvinian. “People have begun using waste-based construction materials like cardboard, reclaimed materials like skis, and other bio-based materials like algae- and coral-based materials.”

“Utilizing something hybrid with knits and mycelium, which is both waste- and bio-based, helps this area to continue growing,” he concluded.

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

Learn more via the SOM Foundation website.

For more news from the Stuckeman School, follow us on Twitter @StuckemanNews.