Buildings have been made out of bamboo for thousands of years and now a team of University of British Columbia researchers is making the construction material even better. They’ve developed a higher quality, lighter and more moisture-resistant bamboo panel that could replace the demand for wood, steel and concrete building materials.
Gregory Smith, a professor in UBC’s Dept. of Wood Science, says that using bamboomaterials to meet future building needs may offer a more sustainable solution to rapid urban expansion that’s taking place around the globe.
“Concrete manufacturing is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide,” says Smith, who is collaborating on this project with colleagues at MIT in the U.S. and Cambridge University in the U.K. “With the demand for new buildings in rapidly developing areas like China, we need to find ways of reducing the carbon footprint of the construction industry and promoting the use of renewable materials.”
The coming bamboo boom?
Bamboo is abundant in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, although only a few of the 1,500 known species of bamboo can be used commercially. Those that can be used as building materials tend to grow quickly. Giant timber bamboo, for example, needs just four to six years to be harvested, far less than the decades it can take to harvest timber.
But bamboo has lagged behind wood in terms of building materials development. The wood industry has evolved to create new engineered products, such as oriented strand board (OSB), that meet the demand for large panels of uniform material despite dwindling supplies of large logs.
Smiths’ Wood Composites Group at UBC is developing engineered bamboo building materials similar to composite wood products like OSB. The task is not without a few hurdles as bamboo is far less consistent in size, density and strength than wood. Bamboo is also generally heavier but more flexible than wood.
“In contrast to the relative uniformity of wood, bamboo is a hollow pipe interspersed with hard node plates, with a sharp decrease in hardness and density from the outer to the inner wall,” says Smith.
Looking for other solutions
Smith’s collaborators are approaching the question from different angles. Kate Semple, a research scientist from Australia, and Polo Zhang, a master’s student from China, are combining bamboo flakes with wood flakes to enhance the strength and water resistance of oriented strand boards commonly used in housing construction.
A research group at MIT is examining bamboo tissue on the microscopic level while a team at Cambridge, is developing nationally and internationally recognized building codes for structures using bamboo composite beams.
On the manufacturing side, Felix Böck, a doctoral student from Germany, is developing technologies to produce structural bamboo products that can help developing countries such as Ethiopia, Colombia and Ecuador process indigenous bamboo into building materials that can help build their communities in a more sustainable way.
“The potential for bamboo composite products could be great, filling many of the needs of the construction industry with a local material at hand,” says Smith.