Mushrooming feats of engineering success

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It’s important not to crowd mushrooms in a pan, otherwise they won’t cook properly, according to well-known American chef Julia Child. But Child likely didn’t realize that those mushrooms crowded together can accomplish impressive feats of engineering within concrete structures. 

Emma Zhang

Xijin “Emma” Zhang, assistant professor in civil engineering at George Mason University, is working on exploring the use of fungi spores within infrastructures. The practice is relatively new, and Zhang is the first professor within Mason’s Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering to work on incorporating fungi materials for sustainable building purposes. 

“The research I’m very passionate about is exploring how to utilize natural resources to solve challenges within civil engineering,” Zhang said. “Although I am not a biologist, studying these natural solutions to engineering can help make complex solutions to infrastructure challenges simple.” 

In Zhang’s research, the fungal fibers that make up the "stem" part of the mushroom get mixed into the concrete mixture before the building process starts. If cracks later generate within the concrete structure, the air and moisture seeping through the cracks activate the fungi spores. The fungi fibers ‘bloom’ and produce chemical minerals. The strong fungal fibers and the chemical minerals help heal the cracks.  

“The healing of the cracks is facilitated by the growth of the fungal fibers and the fungi’s productions of chemical minerals,” Zhang said. “This self-healing technology saves expensive and timely repairs to the structures.” 

The fungi’s hydrophobic surface means just that—it repels water. This additional benefit prevents water from infiltrating concrete, deterring water-related distresses and improving the durability of the infrastructure.  

Zhang is working on cultivating different fungi spores and testing what works best, as not all classes of fungi would necessarily work for cracks. She has discovered the fungi spores within oyster mushrooms have resilient fibers and can be developed to provide excellent properties in thermal insulation, while being safe for human beings to come in contact with. 

She sees Mason as a hub of rich resources in research, collaboration, and connections. Being fairly new to the College of Engineering and Computing, Zhang is excited to partner with fellow colleagues in various fields, who are also interested in exploring the uses of fungi as a solution, beyond civil engineering.   

“Fungi have many unknown properties, and I’m looking forward to exploring these types of green technology solutions,” she said. “If anyone is interested in joining me to collaborate, I hope they will reach out.” 

Zhang can be reached at