Can Structural Bamboo Replace Steel in Construction Soon?
Originally published by: Interesting Engineering — January 11, 2020
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Editor’s Note: As the article below details, the construction industry continues to explore bamboo as a viable organic substitute for steel and other structural materials used in buildings. For instance, bamboo trusses were recently used to span a sports area. Because of its ability to grow quickly, it has even been suggested bamboo could one day replace softwood lumber in buildings.
Before we started using steel to reinforce structures, bamboo remained the core component in the construction of buildings. Even today, you’ll see the use of bamboo in building houses and other structures in underdeveloped areas.
However, most people have a skewed opinion about bamboo. People tend to associate bamboo with weak structures. However, that is not the case at all.
How bamboo surpasses steel?
Yes, bamboo is stronger than steel in regards to the tensile strength. Steel has a tensile strength of 23,000 pounds per square inch.
But bamboo surpasses steel with a noticeable lead at 28,000 pounds. Noticed the word tensile strength in the mix?
That is because when we consider the strength of a material, there are variables to keep in mind. The tensile strength can be defined as the resistance offered by an objecting to breaking or splitting under tension.
And yes, bamboo is stronger than steel in this case, as it has a tightly packed molecular structure than steel.
The wondrous nature of bamboo
The great thing about bamboo is that we can utilize all the parts of the plant for a variety of purposes ranging from construction to deodorants and medicines.
It can grow above 3 feet in a day and can reach full maturity within 3 to 5 years, depending on the species.
One unknown fact about bamboo plants is that they release 30% more oxygen to the atmosphere compared to other plants, which alone is a good enough reason to grow these when our world is facing increasing air pollution and ozone depletion. The plant also helps prevent soil erosion.
Bamboo plants are used in a variety of applications;
- Its wood is used in the construction of buildings, furniture, bicycle frames, etc.
- Bamboo fibers are breathable and are used for clothing because of its antibacterial and temperature properties
- The bamboo charcoal is an excellent deodorant due to its absorbability
- Parts of bamboo is used in foods and medicines
- Bamboo also makes alcohol taste better
These plants can grow anywhere and don't need the use of fertilizers for their growth. The fallen leaves of the plant provide the essential nutrients needed.
Bamboo as an alternative to steel
Bamboo has been used in the construction field for a long time, even before its tensile strength was known. People used to build houses, furniture, fences, etc. with bamboo.
Our modern-day researchers and engineers are looking forward to replacing steel with bamboo due to its tensile properties.
The use of steel in concrete is costly, and the production of steel has a lot of drawbacks like high costs, atmospheric pollution, and environmental degradation. The bamboo, on the other hand, can be produced at very low costs and has various environmental benefits.
However, we cannot use bamboo to replace steel directly as the tensile strength alone is not enough, even though bamboo is found to be stronger and stiffer than other construction materials.
The plant, however, is prone to attack by insects and can degrade in the presence of water. Long-term durability and shrinkage are also factors to consider.
Extensive research is already underway to eliminate all these shortcomings and boost the existing properties of bamboo. These studies focus on the mechanical and physical properties of the plant and on finding the species that are most useful.
- The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich is developing a bamboo composite called the BambooTECH, which they believe can replace steel with its strength, high versatility, and durability.
- MIT scientists and architects have found the bamboo wood to be denser and stronger than softwoods like spruce, fir, and pine. They are trying to exploit the properties of bamboo to develop it into a better construction material, which can then be used to build more resilient buildings.
Engineering using bamboo: What the future has in store for us!
The use of bamboo, also known as the ‘poor man’s timber,’ in the field of engineering is also numerous. Environmental organizations are promoting bamboo due to its variety of excellent properties and oxygen emission capacity.
Its high tensile strength, ability to withstand compression, and bending property makes it a very promising material in the field of construction. Designers see bamboo as an alternative to lumber.
Bamboo wooden panels offer a natural aesthetic look and finish. Flooring, cabinets, and household items made from bamboo are more durable and less costly.
When researchers weaved bamboo with epoxy, they ended up with a composite that is stronger than carbon fiber. This gives us hope that one day, bamboo can be used to create an alternative to carbon fiber.
The greatest of all advantages is that it is 100 times cheaper compared to carbon fiber.
The low cost, wide availability and strength of the bamboo have made it possible to use this plant in the construction of shelters and large disaster relief projects.
Some of the examples are:
- Flood resistant houses in Vietnam
- Housing for victims of the earthquake in Nepal
- Temporary accommodation in Thailand for Burmese refugees
Apart from its potential to replace steel, researchers believe that bamboo can also be used to replace plastic pipes used in construction.
The use of bamboo in the construction, automobile, and other potential fields can eliminate the need for materials like steel, plastic, carbon fiber, etc. This, in turn, reduces the emission of greenhouse gasses in huge quantities.
The low cost of bamboo reduces the overall cost of construction and makes it affordable to everyone.
Another significant merit of growing bamboo is that no part of the plant gets wasted. Taking these facts into consideration, it is a good idea to promote the growth and use of bamboo to ensure lower costs of living and a better environment for our future generations.