In the martial arts movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the characters of actors Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi spar atop a swaying stand of bamboo, but the towering plants never break.
Now, researchers from the Future Cities Laboratory, a collaboration between Singapore and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), hope to harness the flexibility and strength of bamboo fibres to replace steel rebar used in reinforced concrete.
As Singapore goes through a construction boom, it is paying more attention to greening the construction process - from studying the use of bamboo to reinforce concrete, to calculating the carbon footprint of buildings. Recently, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) made "green and gracious builder" certification a requirement for public construction projects from 2017.
The construction and manufacturing industries produce about 5 per cent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, said Associate Professor Evelyn Teo of the National University of Singapore's Building Department, who studies sustainable construction.
Dr Chew Soon Hoe, a civil engineering researcher and council member of the Institution of Engineers Singapore (IES), said there are several ways to shrink this carbon footprint: Use less material, use material made with less energy, use greener energy in construction processes, and recycle material better at the end of its lifespan.
This is where the bamboo project, led by Assistant Professor Dirk Hebel of the Future Cities Laboratory, fits in. Even with the energy involved in splitting bamboo pieces down to fibres and compressing them with heat and adhesives, the carbon footprint of bamboo fibre is "a fraction" that of steel, Prof Hebel said.
"Bamboo stores carbon as it grows, so we could, so to speak, store the carbon in our buildings instead of releasing huge amounts in the steel industry," he explained.
And it grows in most of the developing countries that could use it most, he added.
His team is testing different "recipes" for making stronger bamboo-fibre bars, and hopes to commercialise them within three years.