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Magic mushrooms

27 Mar 2024 | OP ED Watch

A reader alerts us to an article asking “Could homes made of fungi slash emissions from construction?” Yes, someone really asked it. In fact Euronews.green liked the story so much they reprinted it this January. But where’s the beef, or in this case brick? One of the enduring enthusiasms of climate alarmists is for new and better cement. The current kind is marvellous in all sorts of ways, of course, including allowing truly ugly modernist architecture if you happen to fancy such a thing. But it is a significant contributor to human greenhouse gases, so people are looking for a replacement, including, apparently, from mushrooms.

Arguably the people saying we should live in mushrooms should stop taking them. At least certain kinds. But as the rhetoric escalates so do the odd solutions. This story, for instance, blares:

“Cars, planes and plastics are some of the most well-known sources of pollution. But there’s another source of destructive emissions literally built into our society: construction.”

Destructive emissions sure put mere “pollution” in the shade. But apparently someone measured carefully, or at least dogmatically, and:

“Almost 40 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions are attributed to the built environment, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Of these, 11 per cent are a result of manufacturing building materials such as steel, cement and glass.”

What the rest are the story doesn’t say, nor does it link to the IEA study. Perhaps when the Internet and its “hyperlinks” to “URLs” cease to be a novelty reporters will start assisting readers in accessing documents they themselves presumably downloaded from the “web”. But while people are looking among other things for less carbon-intensive ways of making cement, there are some real physical problems here, or more precisely chemical ones.

As Canary Media observes, while enthusing about the capacity of government to pick environmental as well as economic winners, which suggests that they’d better get going on ways to make better government, cement is an issue for those who consider CO2 pollution because:

“Producing cement and concrete contributes around 8 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions every year. About 40 percent of those emissions comes from fiery cement kilns that can get hotter than molten lava. The other 60 percent is the result of a chemical process. When limestone is heated to make cement, it breaks down into its constituent parts of calcium oxide and CO2, releasing planet-warming gases into the atmosphere.”

And whereas you might fantasize about furnaces “hotter than lava” from a windmill or some such, getting from calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to calcium oxide (CaO) is going to leave CO2 as sure as 3-2=1. So unless you’re going to harness, say, nuclear fusion to change carbon into something else, and if you had fusion you wouldn’t need fossil fuels anyway, cement is going to pose problems.

Probably. Mind you Heatmap Daily talked about a couple of entrepreneurs hoping to find a way to make “reactive lime”, as in calcium oxide, from other materials than limestone, and process it with electric currents not a blazing hot kiln. So somebody out there is paying attention to physical reality even on the climate file, which is nice.

The Euronews.green piece is trying to bypass the lime altogether with a different solution, or supposed solution. Namely to use something else for construction in place of cement altogether. Specifically that stringy mess under a mushroom:

“The use of mycelium – the root-like network of fungal threads that grows beneath mushrooms – as a construction material isn’t a totally new concept. Mycelium has been used to make sustainable packaging since 2007. And back in 2014, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art showcased an architectural installation made from agricultural waste and mycelium.”

That something has been in a museum of modern art isn’t the strongest selling point we can imagine. But evidently we have a manufacturing miracle:

“When packed into a mould together, the fast-growing fungi feed on the waste, and the organic bricks grow solid.”

And while it’s easy to mock, there may well have been a time when the idea of making homes out of stone rather than wood, or animal skins, sounded fantastical. So we listen with some respect to claims that:

“Products containing mycelium are not only renewable and biodegradable, but are also lightweight, excellent at insulating and have high resistance to fire.”

At the same time, we note that fungi has had enthusiasts for quite some time. Four years ago we mentioned an ingenious community college student in Nebraska who’d made a canoe out of mushrooms, which NBC predictably profiled under the heading “Is fungus the answer to climate change?” whereas we weren’t even sure it was the answer to portaging. And the Smithsonian Magazine, for instance, asked “Is Fungus the Material of the Future?” given that “Scientists in the Netherlands have found a way to make slippers and other household objects using fungi”. But they asked in 2017 and if you have a fungus shoe you’re ahead of us. Or at least somewhere different.

We then stroke our chins and ask whether the actual manufacturing process might not turn out to spew CO2. And what happens when the bricks deteriorate, and how fast they do. And, more pointedly, whether the assembling of the materials with its inevitable transportation costs (including GHGs for those who fret over such things) and then the actual creation process followed by distribution really constitutes a margin large enough to save the Earth. But then we concede that if the crisis is as bad as the alarmists say, then it’s all hands on deck and all fungi too.

We also concede, struggling to be fair-minded, that for all its wondrous properties cement has drawbacks. Euronews.green pillories the stuff:

“Cement production generates around 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or about 8 per cent of the global total, according to the UK’s Science Museum. Additionally, it produces harmful air pollutants including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Concrete is also exhausting the world’s sand supplies, which are often mined from rivers as desert sand is the wrong shape.”

We’re not that worried about CO2, obviously. And the actual pollutants, while annoying, are presumably manageable with modern methods. The concept of a sand shortage, while it sounds ridiculous, is more of a concern, including with respect to some of the famous sinking cities whose troubles arise at least in part from the immense human appetite for sand. And while there may be better solutions than a skyscraper made of mushrooms, it’s also possible that this strange concept has a future.

What we can’t believe is that the environment is so fragile that its survival or annihilation depends on fungus bricks. As with, say, the plan to save the planet using voles, it suggests a weird imbalance between the cosmic overwhelming scale of the supposed problem, and the trivial scale of a decisive solution.

4 comments on “Magic mushrooms”

  1. Rather than concocting nonsensical solutions to non-existent problems may I suggest that we focus on making better concrete that lasts a lot longer...you know, like Roman concrete. Oh wait, there are several companies well down the road with such solutions, one for existing concrete structures, a company called Zirconia which provides coatings that make concrete impermeable by water, salt and other harsh chemicals, the other whose name escapes me is formulating a modern version of Roman concrete which appears to have a lifespan measured in hundreds of years! The concrete contractors are not brimming with enthusiasm however as you might imagine, very similar to the "climate scientists" who are unenthusiastic about any news indicating that the end is not nigh!

  2. So the mushroom bricks eventually deteriorate?Or do they rot?If that's the case your mushroom brick home is not gonna have much resell value!

  3. Well in the Last of Us, climate change allows the fungus to colonize and wipe us out. Of course it was much warmer in the past and only some of us turned into mushrooms, so that is just more nonsense.

  4. It is worth noting that concrete structures absorb CO2 by a process known as carbonation. The amount of CO2 absorbed can be upto 50% of tha emitted during manufacture of the cement.

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