MADISON, Wis.– Power engineering is hot. The engineering faculty at the University of Wisconsin knows it and is taking full advantage.
When your enter the University of Wisconsin's engineering building here, the first thing you notice is a decidedly hands-on atmosphere. The space is filled with big equipment and heavy systems, ranging from motors, EV batteries to electric drive trains, wave converters and even something that resembles a small wind turbine.
“What we have here are not toys,” said Giri Venkataramanan, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UW-Madison. “These are all industrial-strength equipment.”
The labs, shared by the university’s two departments – the dept. of electrical and computer engineering and the dept. of mechanical engineering – serve both as research and teaching labs.
For anyone fascinated with power and electricity, UW-Madison is Disneyland.
The labs, designed for students to experiment, are set up to deal with anything and everything to do with the generation, transmission and distribution of electric power, and devices connected to things like generators, motors and transformers. There are, naturally, work benches galore, each with its own big poster. The poster provides a succinct summary of the research project, illustrates its details and shows its progress with pictures and diagrams.
A trip through the labs feels like walking through poster sessions at a big industry conference. Reading each poster and listening to students at each bench, one realizes that each project not only has a clear practical purpose [toward potential commercialization]; some projects already come with a sponsor.
Setting the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s engineering departments apart from other universities in the United States is the UW’s historical strength in power engineering, and its heavy involvement in the influential Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC).
Since 1982, UW-Madison has become the center of WEMPEC, where a growing number of corporate sponsors collaborate with a team of professors, graduate students and visiting scholars from abroad to research and develop the newest technologies in power electronics, actuators, sensors, drives, motion control, and drive applications.
While the consortium started out with only a handful of corporate allies in early 80's, WEMPEC now has 88 sponsors. The list, which includes a broad range of local and international corporations, reads like a Who’s Who in the power electronics, automotive/aviation and energy, sensor and motion control businesses. It includes: ABB, Boeing, Chrysler, Delphi, GE, GM, Mathworks, Nissan, Temic, Toyota, Texas Instruments-Motor Control Lab, Whirlpool and many more.
Venkataramanan explained that each corporate sponsor gives out a gift of $15,000 or more each year per sponsoring unit. These contributions are used to fund basic research of interest to the supporting companies. By keeping close contact with corporate sponsors, students learn more about the real-world’s needs. By the time they graduate, they’re prepared “to hit the ground running” in the business environment, said Venkataramanan. WEMPEC also “keeps us relevant in what we do,” he added.
One could say that the university, via WEMPEC, is feeding graduates directly to sponsorship companies. Some view this as a positive, while others find it a little controversial.
Dan Ludois, postdoc at the UW-Madison’s engineering dept., who has benefited from WEMPEC, noted that WEMPEC is “flexible” and allows students “to try different things.”
Ludois, however, acknowledged that WEMPEC is not without its detractors. “Some say that WEMPEC is giving corporations access to students” in exchange for cut-rate brainpower. Ludois argued: “On one hand, people expect universities to get engaged in basic scientific discoveries. On the other hand, consortiums like WEMPEC are helping universities to manage their discoveries, and make them into useful innovations. The process can get innovations adopted, scaled and manufactured.” Ludois added, “After all, isn’t that what the engineering is all about?”
Ludois, whose postdoc tenure ends at the end of this month, isn’t going to work for a big sponsor’s corporate lab, though.
He founded in Madison his own startup called C-Motive Technologies, together with WEMPEC Ph.D. candidates Justin Reed, and Micah Erickson. The startup has developed proprietary motor and generator technologies using electrodynamic fields to miniaturize synchronous machine brushless exciters. “Our exciters use no magnet, no copper and no steel. They are made of aluminum,” said Ludois. “The goal is to make them cheaper, lighter and smaller.” The startup which already developed a proof of concept prototype is now waiting for a commercial prototype. “We are currently in a series A funding phase.”
Photos taken this week and posted in the following pages are to offer a glimpse of what’s going on inside the labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is built along the Lake Mendota.
The campus is renowned for the Memorial Union Terrace stretched along the lakeshore.