Mycotronics: Stanford Bioengineering Researchers in the Endy Lab + 42 Students Building a Smart Incubator for Bioproduction of Sustainable Materials
42 has teamed up with Stanford Bioengineering to create a robotics system based on mushroom-related research. Believe it or not, but mushrooms can be more than just food, so we’re developing an easy-to-use, cost-effective production system that Makers will love.
Mushrooms, Bioproduction, and Materials
Mycelium materials are bringing mycelium, the vegetative portion of mushrooms, into the forefront as a sustainable material. Mycelium has been used in a variety of applications: from textiles in the form of leather replacements to building materials to pharmaceuticals to mycoremediation (using fungi-based technology for environmental decontamination.) Stanford Bioengineering researchers in the Endy Lab are developing standards and tools for engineering mycelium. As one of the Lab’s researchers Rolando Perez says, they are “working to realize a future where people can produce things like energy, food, medicine, and materials sustainably, with biology, wherever they need it.” Mycotronics merges mycology, electronics, and robotics. The Mycotron was conceived of by the Endy Lab. The Endy Lab has partnered with 42 to further develop the technology in an open and accessible manner. 42’s Robotics Lab is working closely with the Stanford team to bring the project to more researchers and consumers.
Design and Fabrication of the Robotic System: The Mycotron
The Mycotron is a modular open-source intelligent robotic system for distributed bioproduction. With Mycotronics you can grow your own food/vegetarian source of protein, grow your own cruelty-free textiles, grow your own supplements, and grow your own lightweight and chemical free building materials. Mycotronics is a smart incubator whose building costs are roughly 5-10 times less than the price of commercially available versions, and up to 100 times less than higher-end models. This could lead the way to making these types of technologies available at a lower cost to the general public, giving people more access to an effective method of sustainably growing mushrooms in an eco-friendly manner that creates zero waste. Not only does the Mycotronics team take pride in what they have built, but they were also recently recognized at the Maker Faire and won Editor’s Choice blue ribbon award as well as ActInSpace U.S. National Finals winners and Global finalists.
Collaboration with Stanford Bioengineering Department
42 has been working directly with Rolando Perez, a Bioengineering Ph.D. candidate at Stanford and founder of the Mycotronics project. Rolando conceptualized and developed the mycotron project out of a need in his research for better standards, improved measurement tools, and a desire to develop low cost, open and accessible tools for distributed bioproduction. His work at Stanford is focused on developing tools for bioengineers and practitioners to program cells of the mycelium to perform human-defined functions. He works very closely with the 42 team traveling between Stanford and 42 to coordinate and help lead the project by providing continuous user feedback & design input as well as making executive decisions for the project in conjunction with the Robotics Team. He has also taught the Robotics Team how to work with petri dish cultures, how to use proper sterilization techniques, and how to prepare spawning material so the Robotics team can work with the biology in their own lab. All the way through the project, even participating with the team at the Maker Faire, his leadership of the project has set the stage for bringing the Mycotronics incubator to fruition, and for further collaboration between our two schools.
We sat down with the Robotics Lab Team at 42 to learn more about their design and fabrication role in this mushroom project:
How did you get involved with the Robotics Lab Team?
Steven: I heard on Slack the Robotics Lab needed builders, so I thought they needed someone to help them build something and I found out it was part of the admissions process to get into the lab. I have a background in building, so I went through that for the week and helped them build stuff.
Taylor: At first, Dan posted on Slack that they were interested in another student doing the front end…I was interested and asked him to let me be a part of it, so here I am. I work on the web app where we control and monitor our incubator.
Wesley: I heard about the buildouts. When you come here before you become a member of the Robotics Lab you need to participate in buildouts. Even the floor and stools were custom made and made by students. After level 5 you become eligible to become part of the Lab.
How did this collaboration with Stanford come about?
In early 2017 Dan heard about Rolando’s research at Stanford through mutual colleagues. Dan then started his own research into industrial commercial mushroom cultivation and automation, meeting with farmers and doing needs finding. Dan developed an interest in the possibilities of mushrooms for remediation as well as the possibility of using underutilized spaces such as basements of large buildings for automated commercial mushroom production. Dan then met with Rolando after a short email introduction and they decided to collaborate on the nascent project Rolando started in the Endy Lab, the Mycotron project. Rolando openly shared the details of his research with the Robotics Team, as well as a very early prototype, and they began to meet regularly to specify and design the first prototype. The first Mycotron prototype was fabricated in the fall of 2017 at the Stanford BIOME Biohackathon by the Robotics team and Rolando. They continued to work closely, with some periods of downtime due to the Robotics Team building their own lab and Rolando advancing to Ph.D. candidacy, but continued to meet weekly, culminating in the fabrication of the first functioning Mycotron version 0.2α in April 2018. Now the project is potentially being brought under the umbrella of a broader scoped collaboration between the Endy Lab and the 42 Robotics Team to expand into additional bioproduction systems.
What is the purpose of the project?
Mycotronics is an open-source modular smart habitat for automating bioproduction in your own home. Steven added that the goal is, “To build an incubator that is at a cost that allows everyday users to have access to technology to expand the field of mycology. The current price of a commercial incubator is an order of magnitude greater than our model’s construction cost and often, commercial versions do not incorporate capabilities like imaging.”
How does it work?
Dan: Right now, it is a smart incubator that is connected to the web. From the app, you can control the environment inside of the box, as well as control the temp, humidity, and gas exchange to a certain degree. There are a couple cameras inside, so that allows you to keep the incubator closed (so the environment inside of the box isn’t contaminated, for instance) while still being able to visually monitor progress inside.
Describe the work you did on the project:
Steven: I machined the base plate inside the incubator to collect condensation runoff from the humidifier. I used Fusion 360 to generate gcode and I plugged that into the CNC router, to mill the base plate out of wood. We are hoping to switch it to acrylic: right now the base plate is wrapped in tin foil.
Taylor: Wesley worked on a program that updates the data from the machine to firebase, and my duty was to grab the data that was uploaded and let users view and modify it.
Wesley: I did the software, I was rewriting some of the software and I added the camera system. I did some construction on the box, and I put in some insulation to seal the box.
What was the most difficult part?
Steven: I had to learn how to use fusion and create gcode from scratch. I’ve done traditional carpentry but never with robots.
Wesley: The project was already started when I came on board so getting up to speed on existing software, figuring out everything that I had to do.
What did you enjoy most about the project?
Steven: Talking to hundreds of people who were curious about our system and its uses, and having the opportunity to inform so many on a topic that I love.
Taylor: When the data was really impacting the product itself, the sliders have a function, it is actually doing something in the real world. The relationship between software and hardware is just awesome for me.
Wesley: I got to work with Arduino again, it has been a few years since I first used one, and it was fun relearning.
What did you learn from this project?
Steven: 3D modeling, programming CNC routers, how kickstarters are presented, the importance of connections in the industry, how to work with diverse teams I never met before, how to talk continuously about the same topic (especially at the Maker’s Faire when we spoke for 4 or 5 hours a day).
Wesley: I knew nothing about mushrooms before, I got a two-week crash course in mushrooms.
Tell us more about your experience at the Maker Faire:
Dan: We had a lot of interest, we won an award in zone 5 which focused on robotics. We got interviewed by a Japanese TV station.
Steven: It was my first time at anything like that. It was amazing, it was like Burning Man for people who like robots.
Taylor: It was my first time, it was super awesome. I saw a dude carrying a 3D printer on his backpack that was printing while he was walking around.
Wesley: It was also my first time, and it was fun but tiring. There was a robot comeback team, they had a big crowd so we were trying to talk over them.
What was it like winning the Editor’s Choice Award?
Dan: It was fulfilling, it was a lot of work.
Steven: It was literally unbelievable, this guy came to the booth and asked deep, thoughtful questions for 10 minutes, I gave him answers until he walked away, and 5 minutes later he handed the blue ribbon to us.
Taylor: It was really cool, I wasn’t there at the time, but Dan was really excited and I heard that the judge asked questions for about 20 minutes.
Wesley: It was awesome, that was a surprise. I left the booth for 10 minutes and came back to a ribbon. We got some outside recognition for this, which is really cool.
What future do you see for the project?
Mycotronics short-term goal is a low-cost intelligent bioproduction system for synthetic biology research and consumers needs. Their long-term goal is building on hardware/software/database to develop intelligent bioproduction systems for terraforming and space applications.
Steven: I want to see it include CO2 control monitoring and regulation and continue improving the box and making it even better while keeping the cost low. I want to see a box that can do everything and make it accessible to the public.
Taylor: I think we can make a fully working product that will be sold to consumers. On my part, I would like to improve the design and user interface of the app.
Wesley: I am hoping that we can scale this up a bit, there were questions at the Maker Faire about if it can be bigger or can people invest in these systems.
Meet Some Members of the 42 Mycotronics Team
Name: Steven Monroe
Hometown: Sarasota, FL
Interests: Agriculture, machine learning, mycology, ecological sustainability, and nutrition. I tried to create a nutritional agriculture major at my school. Faculty were too busy with other stuff so I studied it solo for a semester and a half and after that, I came here.
Dream Job or long-term career goals: 3D ocean agriculturist.
Name: Taylor Yang
Hometown: Nantou, Taiwan
Interests: 3D printing, robots, hardware, and software.
Dream Job or long-term career goals: My goal is to become full stack engineer and also design hardware and aesthetics of a product.
Name: Wesley To
Hometown: Garden Grove, CA
Interests: I like working with hardware, I do woodworking, and I play guitar.
Dream Job or long-term career goals: I am here because I want to be a software engineer.
Dasha Gurova and Annie Ho assisted with marketing material creation (like the design of the logo) and running the booth during the event.
Thanks to the following individuals for their contributions to this article: Rolando Perez, Daniel Goncharov, Steven Monroe, Taylor Yang, Wesley To, Dasha Gurova, Eziz Kulyyev, Inessa Prokofyeva, Camille Macrae, & Annie Ho.
published by Stacey Faucett – June 18, 2018