They may one day become homes for humans on the moon or Mars, but for now the first test extraterrestrial habitats are being built on Earth with the help of an unexpected material: mushrooms.
American architecture firm Red House is collaborating with NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms to build new bio-habitats — houses made of living organisms — in space.
Red House is mixing the waste biomass of Namibia’s notorious “bush invader” – an invasive species that drains groundwater, turning fertile areas into deserts – with mycelium, a fungus whose structure is an underground network of connecting fibers .
The goal is to create food and, in this case, a sustainable building material that is reportedly stronger than concrete.
Mycelium has unique properties” that act like a glue to bind substrates [such as construction debris and plants] together,” Christopher Maurer, founder and principal architect of Red House, told RockedBuzz via Euronews Next.
How to “grow” houses on Mars?
Biomass will be more complicated to produce in space, however, “because there’s no biology … nothing to grow mycelium on,” Maurer says.
But the company was determined to create an extraterrestrial design using materials from waste streams here on Earth.
They envision an unmanned mission arriving on Mars with a folded shelter contained within a sealed pouch with dehydrated algae (more specifically chaetomorpha, or sea emerald as it’s known) and dormant mycelium.
Once in situ, a rover vehicle on the surface of Mars would inject carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water from the Red Planet into the sealed bag to rehydrate the algae.
“It’s like blowing up a balloon,” Maurer said.
The reaction will produce oxygen which will rebuild the structure while nourishing the mycelium.
The mycelium will grow and expand into the desired structural shape and fuse with the algae to form a rock-hard biomass.
The “growth” of homes would be quite rapid, he added.
“In a dream scenario, it could be erected in hours or even minutes if you had the right kind of pressure pumping it. So, creating the dry, solid biomaterial that becomes insulation would ideally take four weeks.”
Stronger than concrete and radiation repellent
Mushroom-bound biomass is not only notable for its ability to leave the Earth as a very small folded mass which then transforms into “tons and tons of material” at its destination, but it can also “convert high-energy radiation, which is our main responsibility [on Mars]into a resource to create more biomass”.
“Radiation is the main thing keeping us from going to Mars,” Maurer explained, adding that the research demonstrated mycelium’s ability to function as a radiation protective layer “at higher levels than most materials.”
The project team is building ‘a macro-scale organism,’ says Maurer. “We’re sort of designing the architecture for the microbes, and then they’re forming the architecture.”
Can Mushrooms Really Make a Home?
Maurer says he’s already posed the question to planetary protection experts at NASA, “and they’ve looked at it and said it looks fine.”
“We’re just growing mycelium… and there are all kinds of different species that don’t produce fungi. They can’t produce spores, which is usually the problem with molds and stuff like that,” he told RockedBuzz via Euronews Next.
Ultimately, the sealed container poses less risk than sending humans inhabited by millions of microbes with a huge microbiome that would be impossible to sterilize, she says.
When will mushrooms help colonize the Moon or Mars?
So when are we likely to see mushroom habitation on the Moon or the Red Planet?
“If we get the moon money, we can do it in a few years because we have a lot of parts in place. But if we keep up at the pace that we’re doing there, waiting for technology to come from everywhere, it could be decades,” Maurer said.
However, the Red House prototype has already passed the proof-of-concept phase at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) and is currently in phase two, what they call architectural design development. Phase three would be a small demonstration.
The architectural firm is also preparing to send a small 15x15cm model of their prototype to the Moon using NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS), which offers private companies the ability to land on its surface and carry scientific instruments.
The prototype will travel to the moon “in a kind of sealed container in which we will have water and carbon dioxide to feed the algae, which will then create oxygen that will feed the fungi”.
The large-scale, long-term mission would need NASA to be able to procure water, potentially on the surface of Mars.
Are there applications for mushroom architecture on Earth?
Beyond space exploration, Maurer thinks the technology could “open up architecture to be able to do new things … building in a way where you can actually store carbon rather than emit it.”
In the same way that reinforced concrete changed the way we build structures, “this improves, almost reversing, the carbon footprint that modernism had.”
The world’s built stock is responsible for 40% of the planet’s carbon footprint, “so if you could reverse that, you could see a huge, huge change in how we put carbon into the atmosphere.”