Bamboo: a sustainable alternative to the concrete jungle?

Strong, fast-growing and widely distributed, bamboo is an attractive, yet underdeveloped material that could prove valuable to the construction industry, according to UBC researcher Felix Böck. The Structural Bamboo Products Project, a collaboration among research teams from UBC, MIT and Cambridge, aims to create high-quality construction materials made from bamboo. UBC researchers are developing manufacturing techniques to help realize bamboo’s potential as a spearhead for sustainable development worldwide.

UBC’s Felix Böck is developing building materials made of bamboo.| Photo by Martin Dee.

UBC’s Felix Böck is developing building materials made of bamboo.| Photo by Martin Dee.

The UBC team, which primarily handles the manufacturing aspect of the project, includes UBC professor Gregory Smith, Australian research scientist Kate Semple, and grad students Felix Böck from Germany, and Polo Zhang from China.

Sustainably speaking

One of the project’s main goals is to develop bamboo as a sustainable alternative to carbon-intensive building materials, such as concrete, which is used extensively in developing countries.

“Concrete manufacturing is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide. 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,” says Smith in a press release from UBC News.

According to Böck, bamboo’s rapid growth rate makes it a highly renewable resource – especially when compared with conventional wood products.

“Bamboo can be harvested after three to five years of growth, while a fast-growing pine takes 30 years and an oak tree takes 120 years [to harvest]. The positive environmental impact can be huge, if you can take advantage of using bamboo,” Böck explains.

Another advantage Böck highlights is bamboo’s high capacity for carbon storage.

“Bamboo captures a lot of CO2 (carbon dioxide). So if you examine the life cycle of bamboo compared to a normal tree, you can see how much more CO2 can be captured in the process,” he says.

From a social perspective, Böck says using indigenous bamboo for construction facilitates development by allowing developing nations to depend less on imported materials. Bamboo grows in tropical and sub-tropical areas, which also happen to be undergoing economic development.

“I worked in Ethiopia, where they import high amounts of steel and concrete from China. I was thinking, ‘why do they use imported materials when they are so rich in locally available, renewable resources? You can replace a lot of these construction materials with bamboo,’” he says. “Bamboo grows mostly in developing countries.”

High-tech pioneers

While the MIT and Cambridge teams are studying different bamboo species and working on the architecture and design for developing building codes, respectively, the UBC team is adapting wood industry technology to create high-quality bamboo materials. Despite the benefits of using bamboo as construction material, there are challenges associated with using it as a raw material.

“Our motivation is to develop new products because wood is already used in composite materials, but if you use bamboo as composite material, you have the potential to develop a very high-performance material,” says Böck.

According to Böck, UBC focuses on manufacturing technology and innovative bamboo composites.

Composite materials – as opposed to raw materials – can enhance sustainability by minimizing the amount of material that is wasted. Composites consist of thin bamboo strands that are compressed with special machinery to create highly densified panels.

A significant advantage of composite materials is that they allow you to use a higher percentage of the raw material and reduce waste.

“If you use only bamboo strips for flooring, for instance, you would have a lot of waste that is planed away during production and would only have 40 per cent material utilization, while processing the whole bamboo culm into particles, chips or fibres for manufacturing composites allows you to use nearly 100 per cent of the bamboo culm,” Böck explains.

“That’s a great advantage and highly desired to protect the environment and use our natural materials in the most efficient way.”

The UBC team is also developing innovative ways to reduce the weight of bamboo composite material by combining them with wood strands – a technique that could greatly enhance its viability as a construction material.

“Bamboo composite is greener and stronger. If we could make it lighter, bamboo could be exploited to its full potential as a building material,” says Zhang in a video of her three-minute thesis presentation at UBC.

For more information, contact Felix Böck:, 778.683.2466