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Bamboo: an innovative material for industry

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Research and development activities in the field of materials based on bamboo have been thriving especially since the beginning of the 21st century. The activities that create more interest are those aiming to activate bamboo as a raw material source for modern industrial applications which lead to the question how innovation in this field can support the growth of a more sustainable bio-based industry – eventually needed to drive the shift to a circular bioeconomy. 

This article wants to prove both how innovative bamboo materials are in helping the industry to grow and the intent to focus on the innovation strategy applied so far also to wonder why the anticipated technology transfer failed and what might be a more effective solution to see more industrial applications in the future. 

MANY USES

Until today the many R&D activities, innovation projects and start-ups dealing with bamboo materials have presented many innovative ways of using bamboo either in its raw or in the engineered form for a vast and versatile scope of applications for example we could mention the following kind of production: bended, laminated, compressed, woven, sliced and various other manufacturing methods, which can be used to convert the raw material into different products. 

The feasibility of bamboo in the industry seems unlimited and it is very difficult to imagine that the industrialization is advancing at a rather slow pace. However, there is a clear discrepancy between the speed and level of innovation and the actual implementation of bamboo material solutions on the industrial scale. 

THE CURRENT STATUS

Currently, bamboo is attracting more and more attention in both the “consumer world” along with the “industrial world” as a versatile and promising raw material resource with the ability to capture large amounts of carbon dioxide, renew itself extremely fast and sustain outstanding mechanical strains. 

Concerning the current debates regarding the protection of the environment, bamboo is a resource with an immense potential in terms of sustainability and climate change deceleration. 

Important studies can demonstrate that bamboo absorbs 20% more carbon dioxide than any other plant and releases 35% more oxygen. Bamboo also prevents erosion – especially during floods, which seem to increase in frequency with a global temperature rise. 

Concerning industrial applicability, with a tensile strength comparable to steel and the ability to withstand compression in a better way than concrete, bamboo products are considered to provide a renewable, low-carbon alternative to these materials as well as even replace plastic or reduce the dependence on hardwood and thereby save trees or even the entire rainforest. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that since more than half a decade bamboo has been continuously praised as a promising alternative to replace traditional problematic materials and provide greener solutions (renewable, low-energy and low-carbon) for architecture, construction, infrastructure, transportation and various other industrial sectors. 

Till today bamboo has not yet been industrialized in its engineered form, it is utilised for flooring, non-structural cladding, decoration, textiles and consumer goods like cutting boards. Apart from some niche applications in the furniture, sports or design sectors none of the large industrial areas such as building & construction, mobility or infrastructure has ventured serious steps into transforming the resource for high-volume, large-scale applications – such as has been demonstrated for example the timber materials.

Compared to the increasing adoption of other available and scaleable lignocellulosic raw materials such as wood, flax or hemp, bamboo seems like a forgotten solution in these sectors. 

LONG-DRAWN-OUT TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER

The different scale-up dynamics of bamboo in relation to the above-mentioned bio-based material technologies and their seemingly easier adoption by the industry are found in the difficulties of transferring the innovative technologies onto a reliable industrial level. One of the reasons is the lack of information about the spread of the resources or missing standards and certification procedures for products with applications in riskier sectors such as building, infrastructure or mobility.

Another problem is also that the ongoing research in the field of engineered bamboo has produced not fulfilling solutions so far. Most of which remained in the prototype stadium but never made it into serial applications. Hence, to answer the question, why the technology transfer has failed so far, let’s consider two important aspects: The first one is certainly the relatively high transition cost associated with the transfer of a technology that is lacking standards and certification procedures. To implement the developed solutions, it is not only necessary to establish a new infrastructure for production and set up new supply chains but simultaneously instigate the development of norms and standards. In addition, for large-scale applications the newly developed bamboo-material solutions need to remain competitive with well-established and therefore cost-efficient material technologies such as steel, concrete or plastics.

The second aspect involves the fact that most of the innovative solutions have been developed by research institutions located far away from the resource or supply chain itself. In many of these cases, researchers conclude their work in well-equipped, well-financed, clean laboratories and then often fail in implementing them, when it comes to establish a quality-controlled raw material supply chain for high-performance applications that have only been proven to work under lab or prototype conditions before.

The reality shows that in most Countries with available bamboo resources the supply chains are not yet ready for an industrial scale-up. This points to an important conclusion that needs to be taken into account when deriving effective bamboo innovation strategies that aim for an accelerated industrial adoption of bamboo materials. Both aspects demonstrate a discrepancy in the perception of the material itself: Innovative research happens in those places, where bamboo is considered a high tech material. Most of the bamboo resources, however, are in Countries, which regard bamboo as low-tech and prefer investing into fields that render these Countries high-tech to boost their chances for foreign investment. Yet, it is actually these Countries which could leverage the adoption of bamboo in industry and generate the highest impact by providing the infrastructure for its utilization. A substantial obstacle to be mentioned in this context are certainly the above-mentioned underdeveloped supply chains, which are still in a consolidation phase.

Industrial application of bamboo requires a broad (and expensive) pool of know-how about the quality and properties of different species and their applicability for a specific type of use. It also often lacks the necessary quality standards and reliability as well as processing technology that is required for a standardized industrial mass production. 

ACCELERATED TRANSFER OF KNOW-HOW

The questions that still need an answer is how to shift the innovation focus and attract investment for applied R&D in Countries with bamboo resources by demonstrating how innovative bamboo materials contribute to a sustainable and profitable industrial growth. A practical answer to these questions is the active promotion of international collaboration and know-how transfer. Only through the implementation of locally viable solutions that support the growth of a bio-based industry that results in durable high-performance materials with the ability to store carbon for many decades, a greater part of the global (industrial) community will be motivated to step into large-scale applications.

With respect to such an innovation strategy, one shall also not underestimate the role of governments in setting the right regulatory environment to push bamboo into more applications. In this regard, China serves as an example, where strategic subsidies created an industry that is valued today $30 billion and developed applications that were not predicted before.

One potential way to accelerate the implementation of scalable solutions is by instigating the right investment initiatives and public-private partnerships. This turns out to be increasingly important when economic models become more and more protective and inclusive. On longer terms, such strategic incentives create opportunities not only for governments but also for industrial stakeholders to transform sustainability commitments into action that may contribute to build more resilient societies. 

Author: Mateusz Wielopolski

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