Bamboo houses may be evocative of a distant past, but for researchers at Republic Polytechnic (RP) and the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), they are also the homes of the future.
An interdisciplinary research centre focused on sustainable urbanisation, FCL teamed up with RP last year to work on composite materials for buildings and construction use.
By combining bamboo with resin, the two parties have developed a bamboo composite with tensile strength and durability on a par with that of steel.
Bamboo is a plant in the grass family which is so strong that it has been called "nature's fibreglass". Given that bamboo grows very quickly, it is an ideal construction material.
However, untreated bamboo absorbs water, and is vulnerable to problems such as mould and termites, degrading very quickly.
"You have to find a way to preserve the natural strength and seal the material from environmental impact," explained FCL senior researcher Mateusz Wielopolski.
The problem was solved by adding resin to the bamboo, creating a composite that combines the best properties of both and making it renewable, durable, waterproof and incredibly strong.
And it is cheap, too. Currently produced in small experimental quantities, it already has costs comparable to steel. With mass production, prices will likely go even lower.
FCL and RP see the product replacing steel in concrete reinforcement. The testbedding process will begin next year, as the first step towards commercialisation. This involves incorporating bamboo reinforcement into the walls of buildings to check that they hold up, in a process lasting at least two years.
By fine-tuning the properties of bamboo, the composite can potentially replace metals and polymers as construction materials. This would be useful in developing countries which are urbanising rapidly.
"If it is possible to exchange cement or steel or other materials which need to be imported and are expensive, with natural materials like this, that would be our ultimate goal," said Dr Wielopolski.
As part of the collaboration, RP has so far sent two teams of materials-science students to assist FCL in its research.
"What we're looking into is really to develop a niche in advanced composite materials," said Song Sin Nee, programme chair in materials science at RP's School of Applied Science.
This article by The Business Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.