Intelligent Energy

Move over graphene: Bamboo is the next wonder material

Posting in Architecture

There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are 1500 ways to use bamboo - from clothing through construction. And environmentalists love it.

Step aside graphene, there's a new super material in town, and it's a lot more common than you and your honeycombed carbon lattices: bamboo.

"Bamboo is being hailed as a new super material, with uses ranging from textiles to construction," writes the BBC in an article coinciding with its radio report Green Gold: The Bamboo Boom (available for listening through April 9, possibly 10). "It also has the potential to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas, and provide some of the world's poorest people with cash.

Bamboo house under construction in Martinique.

"Today you can buy a pair of bamboo socks or use it as  fully load-bearing structural beam in your house - and it is said that there are some 1,500 uses for it in between."

The fast growing rugged grass has "unrivaled capacity to capture carbon" the article claims.

The bamboo industry hails the crop's other environmental benefits. Because it shoots up quickly - as much as a meter (over 3 feet) in a day - it is highly renewable.

According to the Bamboo Clothing website, it thrives without fertilizers or pesticides, requires little water, grows on slopes too inhospitable for other crops, and has a 10 times higher yield per acre than cotton. Want more? It does not uproot soil (harvesting involves cutting it as it's a grass) and it's 100 percent biodegradable, the website notes.

The World Bamboo Organization says today's bamboo market is $10 billion and could double in five years. China produces about 80 percent of the world's supply, but other nations are turning to it as a cash crop.

Bamboo scaffolding can reach high, as above at Hong Kong's now completed Four Seasons Hotel.

"In eastern Nicaragua, bamboo was until recently regarded by most of the local population as valueless - more as a nuisance to be cleared than a boon to them and their region," the BBC writes. "But on land once under dense forest cover, then turned over to slash-and-burn agriculture and ranching, new bamboo plantations are rising."

Nicaragua's bamboo boom has given root to what the BBC claims is the world's first bamboo bond, offered by Britain's EcoPlanet Bamboo with a return of 500 percent over 15 years for the biggest investors, and less for smaller investors.

New industrial processing techniques (I wonder what the ecological impact of those are) makes bamboo competitive with wood products for Western markets, the BBC says. Another use: bamboo has provided biomass fuel at power plants in the Philippines.

Don't worry graphene. As far as I know, bamboo does not have semiconductor capabilities.

Photos: Stalks from Piergiorgio Rossi. House from Laurent Gilet de Bambou Habitat. Scaffolding from Chris 73. All via Wikimedia.

More material matters on SmartPlanet:

And more bamboo bits:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure