A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are aiming to shake up the construction industry by developing high tech bamboo building materials.
"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," said Gregory Smith, a professor in UBC's Department of Wood Science.
His department is part of an international team looking to push the limits of what the plant can do.
"Concrete manufacturing is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide," he said.
While the global impact could be overwhelmingly positive, the research isn't without its challenges.
Smith said that using bamboo materials to meet future building needs may offer a more sustainable solution to rapid urban growth taking place around the globe.
He and other researchers at UBC are collaborating with experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. and Cambridge University in the U.K. to develop bamboo products and building codes.
Bamboo grows commonly in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America – areas with rapid urban growth.
According to Smith, with a rotation cycle of five to six years, rather than decades for tree plantations, bamboo plantations produce up to six times more woody biomass per hectare per year than trees.
Giant timber bamboo, one of the species suitable for building, needs just four to six years to be harvested, far less than the decades it can take to harvest timber.
The researchers hope one day bamboo products can catch on in countries like China, which now has more than five million hectares of bamboo supplying a wide range of processing industries.
This includes producing chopsticks, clothes pegs, flooring and decking as well as many other products.
Much of it is exported.
Katherine Semple, a research co-ordinator at UBC, conducted a fact-finding trip to China.
She said using its vast bamboo resources for commercial and residential construction would help reduce an unsustainable carbon footprint.
Semple said that while bamboo's strength and water resistance make it an excellent material, it has a long way to go.
Culturally, the Chinese building market is far more interested in using steel and concrete on projects rather than wood or bamboo, which they perceive as old-fashioned, Semple said.
But, she is hopeful that as Canada encourages high tech wood building in Asia, it will pave the way for bamboo when the products are ready to go to market.
Chinese bamboo processing is also horribly inefficient due to high resource management and delivery costs, and slow, labour intensive, and highly wasteful processing methods, Semple said.
"All of these factors basically kill the economic factors of bamboo competing with wood products," Semple said.
She said the development of purpose-designed machining technologies to convert bamboo poles to thin strands is sorely needed.
And, bamboo is still decades behind the wood industry in terms of technology and data, Semple said.
Wood has spawned products like oriented strand board that meet the demand for large panels of uniform material.
Decades of data has informed building codes, allowing it to be used.
"That process has taken 30 to 40 years," Semple said.
While bamboo is three times stronger and more water resistant than wood, it is also far heavier and deforms more, making purely solid bamboo products impractical.
Semple said that her team instead has been experimenting using bamboo strands combined with wood products.
Many of bamboo's issues can be overcome by converting them to small thin slices, evenly mixing and then re-gluing them into an engineered composite product with consistent properties, as is done for reconstituted wood panels.
She and her colleagues' research is finding that combining thin sliced bamboo strands with wood strands can greatly enhance the strength and moisture resistance of oriented strand boards.
Another issue is research funding.
Semple said countries like the U.K. and Australia made enormous contributions to researching wood technology, but the money is no longer flowing.
She said Canada is slowly starting to cut back on its public sector research, making it hard to say how far development will go.
Despite this, she believes in the future of bamboo building.
"It has a lot of potential," she said.