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About this Article
Written by: Sara Nakasone
Written on: April 7th, 2003
Tags: building & architecture, energy & sustainability, material science
Thumbnail by: Paul Vlaar/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
At the time of writing this article, Sara Nakasone was a junior majoring in Civil (Environmental) Engineering. She became interested in the uses of bamboo after learning about environmental concerns and different alternatives that can be pursued to help alleviate the problems.
Also in this Issue
Alternative Building for the FutureWritten by: Laura Jones
Directional AudioWritten by: Philip Hirz
Immersion Through Video GamesWritten by: Steve Woyach
The Engineering of BeerWritten by: Erik Tolmachoff
The Harp: Engineering the Perfect SoundWritten by: Lisa Chow
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Volume V Issue IV > Bamboo: An Alternative Movement
Bamboo is emerging as an alternative resource to other types of wood. In the past, people intuitively used it as a basic material for making many different household objects and small structures. However, ongoing research and engineering efforts are enabling us to realize bamboo's true value as a renewable, versatile and readily available economic resource. After briefly exploring the basic facts and traditional applications of bamboo, this article highlights the chemical and materials engineering behind the growth of reformed bamboo as well as the structural engineering issues involved in building larger and sturdier bamboo structures.

Introduction

Tree stumps cry out to the harsh beat of the sun and birds torn from lost homes fly aimlessly in the sky. Rains sweep black sediment into rivers. These are just a few of the adverse environmental circumstances caused by the phenomenon of deforestation, which has resulted from society's demand for material resources. As resources deplete and the environment deteriorates, people are looking towards alternatives such as bamboo to replace conventional materials.
Bamboo is a giant grass commonly found in the tropical regions of Asia, Africa and South America. It comes in 1,500 varieties, from the popular household plant to ones that grow hundreds of feet tall. Bamboo is "the fastest-growing woody plant on Earth" [1]; it can reach maturity in months compared to other woods, which take decades. Bamboo is "a totally renewable resource;you can clear cut it, and it grows right back" [1].
Bamboo has been used in the eastern hemisphere for centuries. It is often labeled as the "poor man's timber" because developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America rely on it for food and as a building material. Bamboo can be used to provide shelter on a limited scale, mainly through its use in temporary and small structures. As environmental concerns rise, turning towards alternative sources is vital. Research is also being done to find ways to improve bamboo's structural capabilities to increase its value as a material resource. The increasing market for bamboo will hopefully also help stimulate growth in developing economies.

Applications of Bamboo

Historically, bamboo has been used to build numerous types of objects spanning from musical instruments to containers to housing frames. The "expanding movement in the West to start making better use of this amazing resource" [1] is expanding the market of bamboo. People all over the world are discovering innovative ways to use bamboo.
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Figure​ 1: Bamboo scaffolding is used in Hong Kong for its sturdiness and reliability.
For centuries, bamboo has been used for scaffolds, temporary platforms that support construction workers while they do exterior work on a building, in places like China and Hong Kong (Fig.1). Though used minimally in China now, bamboo is still relied upon heavily in Hong Kong. It is an art form to build these 60 foot scaffolds; few have learned to lash poles tightly and how to "scamper up swaying scaffolds with long bamboo poles slung over their shoulders" [2]. Many prefer bamboo scaffolds because they "bend in high winds, while steel scaffoldings break" [2].
On a smaller scale, bamboo is being used to build bicycles in Australia and Denmark. While a bicycle's basic design is almost flawless, there is much scope to improve the material it is made from. Conventionally, "light bicycles are made from aluminum, which is one of the most resource- demanding materials" in existence [3]. Bamboo bikes are lighter than, and just as strong, as bikes made using aluminum. Moreover, bamboo is a more readily available resource.