Bamboo Worldwide‎ > ‎

Bamboo in China

I was just in China, where most of the people I met were very happy about the tremendous economic progress that they have experienced, but were also aware of the pollution, and environmental degradation that is accelerating. I saw the same forces at work that I have been trying to address here in California, and met people from Kenya, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Laos, (on the INBAR tour, where we were a striking group when walking around among the Chinese tourists) who were looking for answers to those problems too. So in that regard, I feel that we Bambooseros are at the right place at the right time. That is why I want to help “spread the word” about the true potential for the new uses that we are discovering almost daily…One of the best examples of this is Bamboo Charcoal. We went to Anji, a beautiful little town in a picturesque area of Zhejiang province, where Bamboo based industry has transformed the economy in a big way (so much so, that they are spending a huge amount of money building a very nice Bamboo Museum and Convention Center). The primary product, in terms of financial return, seems to be Bamboo shoots, processed for food. We went to a very well tended area of big bamboo, and saw how the shoots are harvested (the old fashioned way, one at a time, with hoes) and I could see that it makes for a beautiful bamboo grove with space to walk, filtered shade, and fresh air. The remaining culombs, spaced about 3 meters apart (just like it’s supposed to be) were marked and are on a schedule for harvesting after about 5 years; for industrial use. We were with Mr. Chen Wenzhao, a cool guy who owns the Zhejiang Suichang Wenzhao Bamboo Charcoal Co. LTD. He told us that he has about 25,000 hectares of dual purpose (shoots and poles) land under his control. The interesting thing about that is that he accomplished this with government help in the form of the Shangjiang Industrial Zone, which I am not really that knowledgeable about, except for the fact that Mr. Chen has had success getting thousands of small farmers to make Charcoal in small batches, in the field, in an organized fashion.

The process is simple, and easily duplicated almost anywhere….Large brick kilns are charged with dried bamboo, and allowed to smolder for 25 days at a temperature of 900 C. No external energy required, and who knows how much air pollution is created, but the end result is to shrink the Culms down from 15-20 cm to about 6-7 cm of pure carbonized Bamboo that can be put to many uses. The material is quite amazing because it has such high porosity (Dr. Fu said that one gram of bamboo charcoal has 400 sq meters of surface area) we were shown a picture made under high magnification…Probably by an electron microscope, that compared wood charcoal to bamboo, and the difference is apparent. This can be used, as is, for air freshening. I found a little bucket if it just sitting in the corner of my hotel room, for that purpose, and that seemed like a joke, until I heard that it can deodorize refrigerators, shoes, and car interiors, and that they are making little products for each of those uses. It got me thinking about using it in conjunction with a lot of appliances, like vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, refrigerators, fans, etc. What about breathing apparatus, dust masks, and fire fighting equipment? Research is on going, and the market seems wide open.  We are seeking new methods to make Charcoal that will be more efficient, and allow more of the products of carbonization to be captured.  By retaining Nano particles and distillates, we  will add to our resource base for new product development.

Then there is the water treatment aspect….this is truly amazing, if the little bit of information that I heard is correct. We were visiting Zhejiang Forestry University for a very brief time (note to INBAR, maybe you should organize a special tour to some of the many Forestry Colleges, and spend a few days to get more in depth information) when we had tea with the College President….I got to ask him about Bamboo charcoal water treatment, and he told us that they had developed a “three dam process” that relies on gravity to let water flow slowly through “dams” each making the water more pure…it was stated that after the three passes, “polluted” water is made “pure”….I asked about the efficiency of the system and was told that it would remove bacteria, and viruses, and that is very interesting indeed.I tried to get a little more info, and was told that the “dams” are permeable bags filled with bamboo charcoal…I did not see any, so that remains as a question for further study…perhaps someone can tell us more. Anyway, I also asked about other methods such as pressurized filters, and he said that they had that too. Then he told us that a “bag” of charcoal placed in a polluted pond will remove pollutants, including “heavy metals”. So, with that little bit of knowledge, I started thinking that this is truly remarkable, and that it offers a simple way to help solve the world wide water problem….I mean, if more than half of the people don’t have access to pure water, it represents a huge market for this sort of thing…Low cost, low tech, sustainable water treatment, wow! Then, what about sewage treatment?

The project seeks to use waste water to grow Bamboo, on waste land. I have had many people caution me about that, because they don’t trust treated sewage on crops…there is a lot of information about pathogens in sludge and waste water, and there is controversy over the whole spectrum, but what if we could use Charcoal to do a simple “final pass” to make it safe….maybe more passes are in order, or more immersion time can do more, in a quest for industrial “designer water” that could be made for various uses. So that’s something that needs a lot more research, but at least half of it has probably been done at the ZFU department of environmental engineering.

We had a very brief run through of the College Micro Biology lab, where we met a very sweet woman named Dr. Huang Li-Chun, and one of her Grad students Wei, who really understood what I was talking about (they have been trying to find species specific molecular markers too) and were impressed with the idea of bacterial Hydrogen from bamboo…I got a glimpse of the propagules, and asked about one non bamboo looking group and was surprised to hear that they were Sequoias from California, so someday, in a few hundred years, we may see giant redwoods at the College, just like the ancient Chinese Redwood that is growing at my local UC Berkeley campus, from some fossil that was found in China about 50 years ago. Anyway, ZFU, seems like a good place to find out about Bamboo, and don Filipe Cassanova, of Mexico, will be going back there to find out more about Charcoal.

We also went to a Bamboo textile “factory”, that turned out to be a store that sells “bamboo textile” products…called “Style” ( and are on the business card) where I met Rex Chen, vice-manager of Anji Tan Zhuzhuang Bamboo Fiber Co. ,Ltd.; and Xuan Taotao, of the Anji Bamboo Society, who offers “bamboo guidance”. They told me that the material that I was looking at was all “natural Bamboo”, and drew a little diagram of a “cell” of a bamboo bundle….my Chinese is non existent, so I didn’t have much luck trying to find out about the process, which they tried to tell me was “organic”, and a “secret”. I told them that I wanted a sample of the cloths, and they at first wouldn’t give it to me, but eventually, I got some small pieces, which I have here in front of me, so if any of you have any simple tests that might help us figure out if it is just viscose….Anyway, I finally told them that I had to see the process myself, if I was to have anything to do with promoting Bamboo textiles as eco friendly. They promised to take me to the processing factory, and that I could see “everything”….unfortunately, there was a 5 day holiday going on that week May 1-5, and the tour went on to Sichuan, so I wasn’t able to make it to see the process….sorry, I wanted to help settle the controversy, but perhaps Filipe can find out about it since he is living right there in Zhejiang (by the way, I have seen several different spellings for this province, so I’m going with Zhejiang ). They gave me a booklet that shows a few pictures of high magnification bamboo “fibers” and an explanation of a five stage process from raw bamboo, to fiber, to a white cotton like substance (I have a small sample) to thread, and finally to woven cloth….this is backed up with a lot of certificates of authenticity, and technical certificates, all in Chinese….so if anyone reads Chinese, I could send it to you if you promise to translate it faithfully and post it to the group. 

We went to a traditional handicrafts teaching facility, where I was fascinated to see how bamboo is made into many woven patterns. I saw how raw bamboo can be easily stripped into very thin translucent strips that are woven into mats that are almost paper thin….they use a flat knife blade to scrape off the bands of fiber, and split that into hair sized strips for hand weaving….the “shavings” that are the waste product of the scrapping seem to be bamboo fiber, in fact. The strips look about like fiber reinforced packing tape, you can see through it, and it is very strong (two of us tried to pull it apart, and we couldn’t), so I am not quite sure that all of the talk about bamboo fibers being 4 cm or shorter is what I am talking about when I describe Bamboo as a long fiber polymer….I made a short movie of all of this, and will try to figure out how to put it on the internet. There is also a UNISCO pamphlet that shows the same thing. So, I think that there is a big potential for woven bamboo that would serve as a substitute for woven fiberglass cloth in high tech composites….but when I talked about it, most of the Chinese factory managers didn’t quite "get it".

We went to see the most famous bamboo product so far, (except for Chopsticks and bongs, of course) the flooring. I have seen many questions from this group about it, and will now state that it is not very difficult to make, but that it is labor intensive, and requires a lot of specialized machinery, which means that it isn’t cheap to start a flooring company….We saw two different companies using two different methods.

Dasso, is making laminated boards by aligning layers of milled strips into boards, with heat setting glue and pressure, then milling the edges and ends, and running the boards through sanders and several (6) layers of urethane for the finish. There is a lot of quality control, and constant checking for uniformity….the machines are locally built, and seem to require a lot of attention to make sure that the finished product is perfect….

Bamfox makes the same thing and has developed another type of flooring that looks like pressed hardboard of the sort that we call “multifiber” in the US. Again, this isn’t a small operation, and requires a lot of investment to start up, but there is nothing too difficult about it, except getting the machinery and training the work force….

Both companies are making large blocks of their respective material for making different products. Bamfox makes sawn “boards” and furniture. Dasso uses an Italian blade shaver to make paper thin veneers that can be laminated into “bamply”….BMW buys it for the dashboards of the SUV, so I imagine that there are engineers working on more uses for things like this….I have been dreaming of making car body parts, wind turbine blades, rail cars, boats, and airplane wings out of bamboo composites, and these companies are on the way. Dasso is working on the wind turbine blades now, using the thin veneer. I want to use woven mat, because we can engineer it for the stresses, but I’m sure that the veneer will work too…So that’s exciting.

One of the coolest things that I was able to do in China, was ride a bicycle in the human wave of the mega cities….it really keeps you alert, because there aren’t really any rules…it’s everyone for ones self, and the cars don’t stop for anyone smaller than them. It is fun to try to keep moving through the gridlock….I was riding a rented mountain bike made in the US…after having bought a Chinese version that fell apart within a week, so I was wondering why no one in China never tried making a bamboo bike….The guys that rented the bike and sold very expensive imported bikes were aware of the latest innovations, including the bamboo bikes that are just starting to be made at the high end of the market, but I couldn’t get them interested in starting a bamboo bike company….so that is still something that small entrepreneurs might get into….(as some of you may know, this boy needs a job, and wants to help someone make money on the way to the Hydrogen economy, hint, hint)

So, aside from the tour, I had about two weeks free to go looking for anything bamboo.

I had heard about McClure, the famous bamboo researcher who had spent years in Yunnan, and since I thought that the INBAR tour started and ended in Chandu,(wrong), I decided that I would go to Yunnan to look around…. I had a paper by Hui Chou Mao, and had a vague plan to try to find him at the Yunann Forestry College…..The train from Guangzhou to Kunming was 26 hours, with about 1000 people, one of which decided to talk to me….she was a Recent University Graduate in “American Literature”, off to Yunnan, on holiday. As I told her about my project, she looked at my paper, and called a friend right away….everyone has a cell phone, and they work everywhere, even in elevators, and a mile long tunnel, unlike mine at home….so the phone rang about 20 minuets later, and the friend had found Dr. Hui Chou Mao’s number, e-mail, and address…he had also called him on my behalf, and been told that he was out of town, but that he would send a friend to meet me the next day….Thus started an amazing run of good luck, that I take as a sign of the power of ideas. The fact is that people are finally starting to do great things with Bamboo, and that is beginning to be noticed by the general population. I have met hundreds of people and extolled the virtues of Bamboo, and have only two type of people (or maybe 3) who were against bamboo and they just didn’t want it to “take over”…..

Bamboo is one of the oldest plants, and has been flourishing in Asia and India and the rest of the world, for millions of years….So it is only in recent times that it has been used by man….and now, because we are depleting other resources, bamboo is becoming more valuable….so, Commercial interests are starting to dictate prices and resources are being stressed in non plantation natural forests….That presents us with a great opportunity to introduce Bamboo into American Agriculture. It is a much more valuable crop than Cotton or Corn, for a plethora of uses; and is relatively benign in comparison to those environmentally degrading crops.