Chemical engineer studies biofibers as alternative to expensive fossil-fuel based carbon fibers Meet Jenesis Cochrane

Chemical engineer studies biofibers as alternative to expensive fossil-fuel based carbon fibers

Jenesis Cochrane is looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of materials manufacturing as a GEM participant. (Photo Credit: Jenesis Cochrane)

Jenesis Cochrane’s favorite part of being at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) as a National Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM) participant was the wonderful people and peers she met. But, before she was making connections and researching large scale additive manufacturing at ORNL, she was a kid who loved to problem solve, with parents who supported her interest in engineering.

“I also really liked social studies and human geography in school, and this interest still follows me-” said Cochrane, “-because I want to ensure that whatever research I do has a broader and positive impact on people and the environment.”

Currently, Cochrane is earning her doctoral degree in chemical and biological engineering from Northwestern University. She joined the GEM program, because it supports underrepresented communities, which is important to her, and because she wanted to collaborate with other students who would uplift one another. Cochrane was an intern in ORNL’s Bioresource Science and Engineering Group in the Environmental Sciences Division under the mentorship of Dr. Oluwafemi Oyedeji, R&D assistant staff member.

The GEM Fellowship Program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium and ORNL. The National GEM Consortium is a network of leading corporations, research institutions and universities that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

She would start her day in the early morning checking emails, organizing her daily objectives and drafting graphs in the coding language, Python. When everything was ready, she received feedback from Oyedeji and collected more data for her experiments.

Chemical engineer studies biofibers as alternative to expensive fossil-fuel based carbon fibers

Cochrane presenting a poster at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) on biofiber research. (Photo Credit: Jenesis Cochrane)

Cochrane’s research project was on characterizing surface-treated biofibers as reinforcement for large scale additive manufacturing. Carbon fiber is a commonly used reinforcement material in large scale additive manufacturing. It is lightweight and strong, but is also expensive and derived from fossil fuels, making it non-renewable. Cochrane tested biofibers as an alternative material to carbon fibers. Flowability, an object’s ability to allow liquids and some solids to pass through the object, is important to the mechanical performance of biocomposites.

“Powder rheometry tests were done to examine the flowability of treated and untreated pine and corn stover feedstocks at different molar concentrations,” explained Cochrane. “The results suggest that treated samples perform better in some of the flowability metrics for both the pine and corn stover samples.”

Biofibers have the benefit of being cheaper than carbon fiber and is a part of ORNL’s effort to create sustainable material alternatives with smaller carbon footprints. By looking at flowability, Cochrane helps increase the understanding of biofiber’s properties, which can better inform how it is used in future applications. She hopes that the study will help the effort to decarbonize the additive manufacturing industry. She presented the research as a poster at the GEM conference.

Cochrane learned how to use specialized machinery essential to the research in the lab. However, her favorite part of being at ORNL was the people, from her mentor to ORNL interns to other professional collaborators, and she said she always felt welcome. One event she was especially excited to attend was the African American Resource Council Social, where she met other black scientists.

Cochrane recommends the GEM program and talked a little bit about why she chose to apply for a project located at ORNL.

“I selected ORNL, because it is one of the leading research institutions in the country and the project offered technical skills that I could use in my doctorate degree,” said Cochrane. “GEM allows students to gain technical experience by working in labs or in the field. ORNL also does a great job at mobilizing interns via providing centralized housing and organizing transportation from University of Tennessee-Knoxville to the ORNL campuses. This allows participants to build connections outside of the lab as well.”

Cochrane is now focusing on her doctorate degree and wants to use her new skills to educate broad audiences, especially those outside of STEM. From problem solving as a kid to testing materials in the lab with her mentor’s feedback, Cochrane always strives to meet her goal of making a positive impact on people and the environment.

The GEM program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).