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The team's prototype shoe consists of a mycelium-based sole, covered with vegan "leather," and an all-natural cotton fabric top.
University of Delaware students put their best foot forward at this
years National Sustainable Design Expo, showing off a biodegradable
shoe they fashioned using mushrooms, chicken feathers and textile waste.
Masters degree student Jillian Silverman and undergraduate Wing Tang, both in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies,
created a bio-composite materialrenewable and sourced sustainably from
common regional productsthat forms the sole of their prototype shoe.
The shoe and the research process
that went into its development were on display at this years Expo, part
of the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., April
7-8. UDs team was invited to take part after receiving $15,000 in
support from the federal Environmental Protection Agencys (EPA)
People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) grants program.
The fashion industry produces a lot of waste, so sustainability is
an issue everyone is trying to address, Silverman said. Its hard to
believe that people are going to change their consumption habits, but
with this shoe, when someone gets tired of it or it wears out, it can go
into the compost pile and not the landfill.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Team members are (from left) Huantian Cao, holding a
mushroom mycelium sample; Wing Tang, with the prototype shoe; Jillian Silverman, with mycelium she grew in the
shape of a sole; and Kelly Cobb, holding the mold in which the
sole-shaped mycelium was grown.
The project began in 2015, when Silverman conducted research as an
undergraduate Summer Scholar, working with Kelly Cobb, assistant
professor of fashion and apparel studies. They were looking for ways to
make fabric from mushroom mycelium, the interlocking root system from
which the part of the mushroom that we eat on our pizza grows.
The exploratory summer project was less than successful, but when
Silverman began work on her masters degree, she said, I just kept
thinking about it. I couldnt get mushrooms out of my head.
Huantian Cao, professor of fashion and apparel studies and
co-director of UDs Sustainable Apparel Initiative, offered his
experience in earlier research projects to create sustainable footwear
from a variety of composite materials.
Cao also had previously worked
with student teams that received P3 research grants, and he joined Cobb, Silverman and Tang as the
faculty investigator on the mycelium project.
The researchers experimented with
growing different species of mushrooms and using different materials,
known as substrates, in which the mycelium forms its network of roots.
They grew numerous samples, dried them and tested them for potential use
as the sole of a shoe. Some of the materials analysis was conducted using an electron microscope in UD's Delaware Biotechnology Institute.
Silverman experimented with different mushroom species, growing samples that were then dried and analyzed.
The nutrients in which the samples grew included chicken feathers and
a textile waste product thats most often used as a packing material.
The team hopes to experiment in the future with discarded natural-fiber
clothing, perhaps shredding it to create a fluffy addition to the
feathers as a growth medium. The feathers and textile material serve a dual purpose.
The chicken feathers and the textile products provide the nutrients
for the mycelium, and they also are a supporting material for it to grow
in, Cao said. They act like a kind of glue to form a matrix and
create a network structure for the mycelium.
Using textile waste from discarded clothing fits with another
sustainability project that UDs fashion and apparel studies department
has taken on. Working with Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County,
students and faculty are seeking ways to help the nonprofit find ways to
use the millions of pounds of donated clothing that it is unable to
resell in its stores each year.
Once the mycelium samples grown by the research team were tested and
analyzed for the best species and composition, work began on a prototype
As the research progressed, samples were grown in the shape of a sole.
Mycelium was grown in a soft mold in the shape of a soleNo waste
from cutting it into that shape, said Caoand the team settled on a
type of vegan leather to cover the sole and make it more durable.
Tang then designed and made the top of the shoe, using discarded
scraps from the muslin fabric that apparel design students use in the
clothing they create. She used a sewing technique called smocking, in
which she gathered the fabric to give it bulk and shape.
I used vegetable dyes and 100
percent cotton thread, Tang said. The design looks like mushrooms look
when theyre stacked, and everything is completely biodegradable.
More work remains on moving from a prototype to a potentially marketable shoe, but the team is optimistic.
With nearby Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, known as the Mushroom Capital of the World
and Delaware one of Americas top producers of broiler chickens, the
new composite has an ample supply of regional raw materials.
The researchers have partnered with Phillips Mushroom Farms in
Kennett Square and with Goodwill, which has a recycling center in New
Castle, Delaware. The feathers used so far came from a previous project
involving agricultural waste.
The University of Delaware research combines the sustainability
strategies of local production and the use of bio-based renewable
resources to solve environmental problems related to the apparel and
footwear industries, the EPA said in announcing the P3 grant award.
This years P3 teams are applying their classroom learning to create valuable, cutting-edge technologies.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by Wenbo Fan