The following article was written by Lucy Binfield, a PHD Student from the University of British Columbia. Lucy's research looks at the socio-economic impact of specific instances of bamboo industry development initiatives in the Global South.
In many countries and times, bamboo has been associated with the simple life: a natural, beautiful plant found in peaceful gardens, on the riverbank and in paintings, but rarely in the lab as part of a machine. All this may be changing, as research into bamboo’s properties and applications grows.
Bamboo has historically been ignored and underrepresented in research and technology, relegated to use in its natural form. Straight, hollow bamboo culms do admittedly have many uses without much processing at all. The natural bamboo culm is made of very strong, unidirectional fibers that flex and bend but are very difficult to break. Thinner culms make great fishing rods, while larger, stronger pieces can be built into sturdy fences or traditional houses. But what happens when you start to process these long, flexible fibres? For thousands of years, communities living near bamboo groves have painstakingly split bamboo into thin, strong strips and woven those strips into watertight baskets for carrying foods and water. They have painted art on woven bamboo screens and covered their heads from the sun with hats made from strips of bamboo.
With a little more processing and technology, those same bamboo strips can be processed into panels for flooring or even use in construction. Bamboo composite materials, similar to their wood counterparts, are made by gluing bamboo strips in orthogonal layers to make a homogeneous, three-dimensional panel or beam. Some of these engineered products are strong enough to use in multistorey housing and may make up part of the cities of the future.
Bamboo fibres can even be processed and combined with plastic or other hard materials to make industrial strength pipes or even train carriages. Finally, bamboo fibres can be softened and transformed into comfortable fabric and made into clothing, sheets, or other fabric materials.
Research groups all around the world are studying the unique properties of bamboo and figuring out exactly how to take advantage of its strength, its flexibility, and its ecological benefits to create the sustainable and innovative products of the future.
To learn more about the authors work, be sure to check out: