The Anjan Bridge in China is one of the oldest in the world and up until a few decades ago was entirely made of bamboo. Only at the end of last century were the bamboo canes replaced with steel cables. However, this practice is destined to become a trend of the past. Thanks to its rapid growth in different climates, its low input farming requirements and positive effects on the environment, bamboo is considered by many to be the new “green gold.” In a world of industry that is undergoing a biobased transition, bamboo is a perfect alternative to other scarce and costly raw materials that make up productive cycles. Bamboo also represents a valuable development opportunity for emerging tropical countries, as these have some of the most suitable climates for its growth. In Africa and in Latin America bamboo is often considered the “wood of the poor,” but things are slowly changing.

According to Michael F. Ashby, a scientist at Cambridge University and author of Materials and the Environment, in the next 25 years demand for raw materials will grow by nearly 3% annually. At the same time, many of these very materials will become ever more scarce: such is the case with exploitable deposits of metals such as lead, copper, and zinc which won’t last more than another 25 years. Increasingly, production cycles will have to be fed by renewable materials that are also capable of capturing CO2, rather than generating huge amounts of emissions during extraction and use. In fact, in order to honour the commitments taken on at the Paris Climate Change Conference, industry will have to be at the forefront in cutting emissions. “Within the contest of an emerging biobased economy, alternative plants, especially those with rapid growth such as bamboo, hemp, flax, algae, miscanthus, cork, but also different species of algae and fungi (i.e. mycelium) will have an increasingly important role to play.” These are the words of Pablo Van der Lugt, a Dutch engineer and one of Europe’s top experts on the new green gold, and author of the book Booming Bamboo. The (re)discovery of a sustainable material with endless possibilities. According to McKinsey, in Europe alone a circular economy model could cut total raw material consumption levels for 2015 by one third by 2030, and halve them by 2050. 



Bamboo is a giant grass species. It belongs to the Gramineae family and like its relatives its growth rate is even higher than that of trees. In less than 3 years, bamboo canes lignify and can be harvested after just 5 years from the sowing of the seeds. Hence, in very little time the canes are ready, and can be used in various sectors where rigidity and sturdiness are paramount: first amongst these the construction sector. “Bamboo doesn’t need herbicides or pesticides, it is a low-cost crop,” explains Omar Pandoli, who has been studying bamboo cane engineering for several years as a researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil. Its fast growth rate guarantees a good rate of return without the risk of deforestation. In fact, in a sustainably managed plantation 1/4 of bamboo canes can be harvested each year, without compromising the survival of the entire forest. Moreover, in many cases bamboo is used to reforest degraded areas in China and India due to its network of roots which have the characteristic of revitalising soil. “Despite the fact that commercial plantations can use pesticides and fertilisers to increase production, their use is not required and it is not a common practice (unlike wood tree plantations),” continues Van der Lugt.

Bamboo’s carbon performance is also noteworthy thanks to its negative CO2 footprint. “In applications where it can replace high CO2 emission materials (metals, plastic, tropical wood from unsustainable sources), bamboo can drastically reduce CO2 emissions. If this replacement effect were included in future climate agreements, it would become a further incentive to adopt durable bamboo and other biobased products in the construction sector.” Moreover, on top of absorbing huge quantities of CO2, bamboo can restore productivity in degraded soil and increase the yield of land used for other crops, bringing considerable economic benefits for developing countries. 

While in China and India bamboo has been used for millennia and represents a well-established and widespread tradition, in other countries its potential has been appreciated only recently and much more slowly. 

Brazil is a case in point, where the story of the rediscovery of bamboo intertwines with that of Khosrow Ghavami, an Iranian Professor in Engineering who joined the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro where he studied bamboo’s potential. “He was a pioneer and was able to demonstrate that bamboo could replace steel in combination with concrete. Back then, this was a heretical idea,” explains Professor Pandoli, at the Chemistry Department of the Brazilian university. Pandoli arrived in Brazil in 2012 after studying in China. At the university, he “reunited” with bamboo and decided to go and see Ghavani. “This is how my research on what Ghavani calls super nano bamboo started: engineering bamboo canes so as to fill the tiny cavities with nanoparticles, improving performance and resistance to biological attacks.”


Vegetal Steel

Bamboo can become the new steel. Khosrow Ghavami, Iranian engineer and professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, has demonstrated this since the 1970s with his studies. Colombian architect Simón Vélez also agrees. He designs buildings, mainly in rural areas, and often employs this multifaceted material. 

Velez’s guiding principle has been that of “vegetarian architecture.” He claims that: “There is an overdose of mineral based materials in the construction industry, especially in Third World countries.” In contrast the transition to renewable materials could cut costs and increase environmental sustainability as well as creating more resistant buildings. Over three decades ago, Vélez discovered a technique with which to transform bamboo into a sort of “vegetal steel,” making it stronger than metal by injecting concrete into the bamboo canes’ cavities at structural joints. The Colombian architect has already designed over 200 buildings in Europe, the USA, South America and Asia. Many of them employ bamboo.

Green gold has convinced many designers around the world, especially since the spread of high temperature treatments that make this material suitable for outdoor use in facades and flooring. This includes the patented treatment called Bamboo X-treme. In Oslo (Norway), the Bo-og retirement home was one of the first buildings where heat-treated bamboo was used for a facade on a large scale.

In Beer Sheva (Israel) bamboo was used to pave and cover a 180-metre-long bridge, connecting the university to the area beyond the train station. In Leipzig’s zoo (Germany), thousands of bamboo canes were used for the facade of the new garage, combining sustainability with a touch of exoticism.


Another line of research that is catching on in Brazil is that of improving traditional concrete performance by adding vegetable fibres, including bamboo-derived cellulose. Meanwhile, a centre for the promotion of bamboo has been created in the State of Minas Gerais. In fact, in Brazil bamboo is also rallying through design. For instance, Alexandre Montenegro and Henrique Gomma (Fubbá Smart Objects) have created a round table made entirely from bamboo. It is one of the objects carried around the world by Apex (Brazilian Export Agency) to promote Brazil’s creative industry.

The two designers claim that: “We decided to use bamboo because it is a renewable and ecological raw material, very resistant, and last but not least, easy to clean. Bamboo is 30% lighter than wood but it is much more flexible and versatile. It is water resistant, pleasant to the touch and its use doesn’t harm the environment.” 



Montenegro and Gomma are winning one of the most complex challenges in the employment of bamboo: that of finding high added-value uses that are economically rewarding for those employing it. In 1984, in his The Book of Bamboo, David Farrely explored over 1,500 uses for this material, from medicinal extracts to flooring, and from aircraft panels to paper. The Chinese model is the winning one, whereby every part of the plant is used; reducing waste to a minimum. In the past, bamboo handicraft items were sold all over the world very cheaply and this did not help its status as a material for design objects. However, while on the Anjan Bridge bamboo was being replaced with steel trestles, thanks to “green gold,” degraded Chinese lands are made productive once again and Brazil embarks on its rediscovery. A new story has already begun.