Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bamboo Bicycles and natural meta-resources

In my previous posting about metar-esources, I focused exclusively on manufactured goods. But taken another way, humans have been meta-resource users longer than we've been human - as long as we've been tool-using primates. Wood could, for example, be considered a meta-resource, since the tree has gone to the trouble of manufacturing a rigid, easily worked cellulose structure.

Okay, it's a stretch.

It's still interesting to see natural products taking their places beside the most modern. In the case of Bamboosero they're making bike frames out of bamboo, hemp, and (if I understand correctly) polyester resin. Apparently they compare favorably to carbon fiber. Consider that a moment. Bamboo, a fast growing grass (three years from seedling to harvest for bike frames), when heat treated and wrapped in hemp, a crop plant grown for its long, strong fibers for thousands of years (the discovery of and breeding for THC content is comparatively recent), and soaked in polyester resin stacks up to polyester resin soaked /carbon fiber/. Apparently the bike frames are a little more flexible than their carbon fiber counterparts, but this helps them absorb shock better. It boggles the mind, and makes one wonder how many other good materials for space-age material-science have been ignored because humans didn't invent them.

And yes, I understand the role the resin is playing here. Let us not underestimate it or its man-made nature. But I start to wonder if hybrid materials (to coin a phrase) - man-made with natural might not be a strong force as we look into the future.

The constraints are, probably, a lack of engineering data and engineering consistency with natural products. Consider that in the last 20 years or so, as the housing industry has moved to building with lumber exclusively from farmed, fast-growing trees, that the engineering specs on a 2x4 are rather different from 2x4s sawn from old growth pine forests. That kind of thing has to drive engineers (and architects) insane. I wonder if that, as much as techno-snobbery, is behind the lack of utilization of these natural materials, including the gradual replacement of wood with manufactured timbers in homes.

(As an aside: my current house has natural-timber floors. They /give/ a lot more than the old house's manufactured timbers did, and especially under the front loading washer, this is not a positive thing.)

Changing venues to a craftsman-driven, boutique technology realm, whether at the high end in industrialized nations, or the lower end in emerging nations, changes the need for material consistency. Instead of an engineer trying to model what the material will do mathematically, a craftsman knows the material and how it will react in what he/she is making, and presumably how to evaluate the stock. Watch Norm Abram pick out wood for his projects some time, if you want to see that practice at work. (Okay, Norm has degrees in mechanical engineering and business admin, so he might be doing the engineering in his head. But still.)

Meta-materials, naturally occurring or otherwise, because of their variations, might not lend themselves to mass production, but for cottage and craft industries, it's a whole different ballgame.


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