UAA associate professor of public health Philippe Amstislavski collects samples of some of the fungi found in the forests around UAA which are similar to those his team has used to develop a lightweight packaging alternative to Styrofoam. (Courtesy Photo /  James R. Evans, University of Alaska Anchorage)

Alaska Science Forum: Home insulation from wood and fungus

Alaska researchers are working to create insulation that removes carbon from the atmosphere.

One of the downsides of the oil-based materials that keep us warm is that they spew a lot of carbon into the atmosphere when they are made. And those blue and pink sheets of foam insulation never die, often polluting the land and floating on our waterways when we are done with them.

A few Alaska researchers are working to create insulation that removes carbon from the atmosphere and stores it for the life of a building and beyond. When a structure is at the end of its life, the insulation between the walls makes a fine soil.

Robbin Garber-Slaght is a Fairbanks engineer who works for the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center. She notes that Alaskans pay more than double the national average to keep their homes warm during the winter and also pay a lot for sheets of foam insulation, which travels a long way to get here by truck and boat.

Engineer Robbin Garber Slaght holds prototype insulation panels made of wood fiber held together by a fungus species. (Courtesy Photo / Molly Rettig)

Engineer Robbin Garber Slaght holds prototype insulation panels made of wood fiber held together by a fungus species. (Courtesy Photo / Molly Rettig)

She is teaming with Phillipe Amstislavski to develop insulation boards made of wood fiber bound by mycelium, the root-like tendrils of fungus.

Amstislavski, a mycologist (fungus expert) explained the idea by phone from his biomaterials lab in Anchorage, where he is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The scientists aimed at rethinking housing materials because about 75 percent of buildings worldwide are homes. Plastic foam insulation has the second-highest carbon-dioxide emission during manufacture, just behind steel production.

“We thought, ‘How can we turn buildings materials into carbon storers instead of emitters?’” Amstislavski said.

Garber-Slaght and Amstislavski say their biological product has a similar insulative value to foam, repels water but doesn’t trap it, and can be produced in Alaska so it doesn’t need a long ride.

Here are details of their idea:

Certain types of fungi digest wood fiber; we can see it happen when conks form on birch trees.

While a Fulbright scholar in Finland with the VTT Research Centre, Amstislavski learned how to transform wood into a foam that’s easy for mycelium fungus to digest.

Mycelium fungus cells feed off wood fibers and form a dense matrix, kind of like a sponge. When that living mixture grows into a batt of insulative material, the researchers stop its growth by drying it.

Garber-Slaght and Amstislavski have created insulation panels using ground-up birch and spruce wood, which they are working to make fire-resistant.

Garber-Slaght envisions a portable insulation-making system that can be shipped to communities — perhaps those with lots of spruce trees killed by the bark beetle — for use as the woody raw material.

“They can process the trees, and out comes mycelium insulation in boards,” she said. “It would save on shipping insulation (to remote communities). Instead of shipping six containers of foam, we ship one conex and a harvester.”

Amstislavski has already produced experimental mycelium coolers for shipping frozen seafood from Alaska. He thinks the new project with Garber-Slaght is a needed step to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and plastic out of the ocean, and is worth his effort.

“If not now, when?” he said, quoting the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder.

Garber-Slaght, who worked for years to make housing more efficient in rural

Alaska, says this is a product she wants for those communities.

“Grow your own house, why not?” she said.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

More in News

The Aurora Borealis glows over the Mendenhall Glacier in 2014. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Jan. 22

David Holmes digs through a pile of boardgames during Platypus Gaming’s two-day mini-con over the weekend at Douglas Public Library and Sunday at Mendenhall Public Library. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)
Good times keep rolling with Platypus Gaming

Two-day mini-con held at Juneau Public Library.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Juneau man indicted on child pornography charges

A Juneau man was indicted Thursday on charges of possessing or accessing… Continue reading

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Juneau’s municipal and state legislative members, their staff, and city lobbyists gather in the Assembly chambers Thursday meeting for an overview of how the Alaska State Legislature and politicians in Washington, D.C., are affecting local issues.
Local leaders, lawmakers and lobbyists discuss political plans for coming year

Morning meeting looks at local impact of state, national political climates.

This photo shows pills police say were seized after a suspicious package was searched. (Juneau Police Department)
Police: 1,000 fentanyl pills, 86 grams of meth seized

Juneau man arrested on felony charges.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Friday, Jan. 27, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Captain Anne Wilcock recieves the Emery Valentine Leadership Award at the 2022 CCFR awards banquet on Saturday, Jan. 14. (Courtesy Photo / CCFR)
CCFR honors responders during annual banquet

Capital City Fire/Rescue hosted its 2022 awards banquet earlier this month as… Continue reading

A resident and his dog walk past the taped off portion of the Basin Road Trestle after it suffered damaged from a rockslide earlier this week. The trestle is open to pedestrians, but will remain closed to vehicular traffic until structural repairs are made, according to city officials. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Rocky road: Basin Road Trestle open to pedestrians, remains closed to vehicles

City officials say repairs are currently being assessed after damaging rockfall

Most Read