Industry News

Research at the University of British Columbia is Preparing the World for a Sustainable Future

BY Lucy Binfield , Tamara L. Britton , Kate Semple , Chunping Dai on April 19, 2021

Bamboo, a fast-growing woody grass, is an abundant natural resource distributed across over 30 million hectares in Asia, Africa and the Americas. It is an economically, ecologically, and culturally important plant with potential applications in many industries. An important cultural symbol in countries like China and Japan, bamboo is a source of food and shelter for iconic animals like the giant panda and the mountain gorilla, and an incredibly versatile material used in construction and to make a vast array of crafts, tourist infrastructure and domestic items. Despite this versatility, industrialization levels remain low in most countries, hindered by poor management and a lack of technical knowledge. The Bamboo Applications and Management (BAM) group at the University of British Columbia, the only research group of its type, envisages a future in which bamboo takes up a much larger role in modern life all across the globe.

Many bamboo products may appear to be made of wood, but the material’s form, mechanical, structural and biological properties differ greatly. Bamboos have an aesthetically pleasing round, noded stem with a tough, durable shell. Some species of bamboo can grow almost a meter over 24 hours, and species used in construction typically reach maturity for harvesting in just three to five years, much quicker than a typical tree harvested for timber.  Different bamboo species grow to different sizes, from a few millimeters right up to 30 centimeters in diameter and over 30 meters in height. Larger species, like Guadua angustifolia, common in South America, tend to be hollow, while some species, like the Vietnamese Bambusa blumeana, have a solid culm. This size and structural variance makes for a broader range of weight-efficient structural and architectural applications than those of wood.

There are over 1600 known species of bamboo, including both running and clumping varieties. Due to their extensive root systems, bamboo is considered suitable for rehabilitating degraded land, and unlike trees, the culms (poles) can be harvested without killing the plant. This and their extremely fast growth means that well-managed bamboo groves can sequester and store carbon at a much higher rate per hectare than many tree species. The physical properties of bamboo are also notable; the culm tissue has exceedingly high tensile strength and ductility, allowing it to flex under wind and snow loads without splitting or breaking. These properties have historically enabled its use for complex, high strength woven containers and other structures that are now made using plastic, glass or carbon fiber.

Taking advantage of these unique attributes, new value-added composite materials can be developed using the residues from primary bamboo processing. Bamboo elemental fibers perform well compared to wood and to many other natural fibers in morphology and tensile strength due to the complex poly-laminate cell wall layering, making it a strong candidate for use as a high-performance reinforcement for composites, including in automotive body parts. Bamboo pulps also have unique properties, and researchers at UBC are working on developing high-performance molded pulp materials for packaging, tableware, and other applications such as biodegradable personal protective equipment.

Research into the microstructure and mechanical properties of bamboo helps scientists understand how its unique properties can be further manipulated and exploited. The BUT group at UBC is collaborating with researchers around the world to develop specialized analytical techniques such as resin microcasting and complex numerical modelling to enhance our understanding of bamboo tissue structure, lengthening its already impressive list of applications.  The group is also using computer software to simulate and analyze the effects of different parameters that affect the density variation in structural pressed bamboo composites, which will to help improve the production process control and mechanical properties of structural bamboo composites and allow us to better understand their potential.

The cities of the future could be built from bamboo: made using new-generation sustainable building materials as alternatives to steel and concrete, and locking up carbon in sustainable, aesthetically pleasing and functional bio-based structures and complementing existing natural building techniques. The BUT group at UBC is spearheading research into bamboo connections, structural design, novel architecture, process automation, and control techniques in North America. Research at UBC will even extend to understanding how the current regulatory environment can facilitate further use of bamboo as a building material by representing bamboo in the building codes of different countries.

Research into innovative products, structural design, manufacturing technology, and fiber utilization efficiency is critical to making bamboo products competitive in a crowded global market. The group is collaborating with international industry partners to work on extending the use of long strips of bamboo, traditionally used in basket and complex shell weaving, into a high strength wound wall substrate for bio-based drainage pipes. Other collaborations involve carbonized charcoal from bamboo, which has a more complex pore structure than wood charcoal, and is used in cosmetics, fabrics, high performance air and water filtration, and polymer flame retardant applications. The cellulose in bamboo is also unique and being developed into a range of textile and other engineered nano-cellulose applications.

Consumer demand for sustainably sourced products have seen the market for simple items made from bamboo, such as bamboo toothbrushes, kitchen-wares and furniture, grow significantly in recent years. Research at UBC also extends to understanding how and why these consumer trends have developed and will influence bamboo-producing communities around the world. Equally important to the group’s remit is the sustainability, community development and socio-political aspects of bamboo exploitation and governance. This also includes how this growing demand for bamboo could influence biodiversity in areas where many species depend on the plant for survival.

The Bamboo Applications and Management Group at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver is the first ever multidisciplinary research group in North America dedicated to studying bamboo, its properties and its applications. We believe that bamboo has a key role to play in a sustainable, equitable future, and that high-quality research into this fascinating plant will yield dividends.

Lucy Binfield is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The Bamboo Application and Management Group (BAM) is made up of Associate Professor Chunping Dai, Dr. Kate Semple, Dr. Meiling Chen, Dr. Yu-an, Hu, Jialin Zhang, Milad Khajouei, Hugo Pineda, Bruce Zhou, Eric Li, Rain Liu, Sol Lewites, and Associate member Tamara Britton from the University of Western Ontario.