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Mechanical engineering graduate advances research in fabric-building bacteria

Liberty University mechanical engineering graduate Tre Thompson (’20) was awarded the 2020 Best Paper award by the International Research Conference last month for his two-year research on Mechanical Properties of Organica Polymer and Exfoliated Graphite Reinforced Bacterial Cellulose that he conducted alongside engineering professor Dr. Ephraim Zegeye.

Tre Thompson

The conference aims to bring together leading academic scientists, researchers, and research scholars to exchange and share their experiences and research results on all aspects of Textile Composites, Materials, and Engineering. It also provides a premier interdisciplinary platform for researchers, practitioners and educators to present and discuss the most recent innovations, trends, and concerns as well as practical challenges encountered and solutions adopted in those fields.

The conference was originally scheduled to be held in London in August but was instead held virtually on June 4 due to COVID-19. The results were announced the following day.

Dr. Ephraim Zegeye

Thompson said his award-winning paper detailed two years of experimentation and observation from developing bacteria from kombucha tea into a fabric.

“In the grand scheme of things, the research that I did was materials research,” Thompson said. “We took a little bit of biology from bacteria that we made and tried to transform that bacteria that we made into a useful textile.”

Thompson and Zegeye first collaborated on the project when Thompson was a junior.

“All of this started a couple of years ago when Dr. Zegeye contacted me about helping him to perform research on how to grow these bacteria,” Zegeye said. “Scientific research had already been done in years past that discovered that these bacteria could be made into fabric, so that meant that our focus was to determine how to strengthen it.”

Even though the fabric is not perfected yet, Thompson and Zegeye’s work has taken it further than it has ever been.

“The fabric is not ready to be worn yet,” Thompson said. “We were able to build off the research that had been done prior to ours. We knew that the fabric made from the bacteria could be used, but it wasn’t very good fabric.”

Once they studied the bacteria’s mechanical properties, they then set their sights on improving the fabric so that it would be able to stretch but still hold without tearing.

“We were able to use graphite particles mixed with some water and then set the actual bacteria inside of it,” Thompson said. “We then put that into a furnace and allowed it to sit for a little while like that.”

The results added extra strength and stability to the fabric, which prompted Zegeye and Thompson to enter the research paper for the conference.

“Tre was an excellent student and a very hard worker,” Zegeye said. “I was so excited about this project and the opportunity to be able to work with him. I gave him some guidance but he put in so much effort and time into this research. He really committed his time and knowledge, and because of that he has received this award.”

Thompson, a native of North Carolina, will be attending graduate school at North Carolina A&T in the fall, but he hopes his research will have a continued impact.

“I was surprised and excited to hear that I had received the Best Paper award,” Thompson said. “Dr. Ephraim Zegeye was so helpful in assisting me with this research, and I’m very grateful for that. Hopefully this project catches the eye of the scientific community enough to prompt someone to further it even more.”