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WEMPEC: Taking the Wisconsin Idea global

WEMPEC students and advisor Giri Venkataramanan (right) pose with the PVC turbine blade design of Pedro Melendez (pictured center, left of propeller).

WEMPEC students and advisor Giri Venkataramanan (right) pose with the PVC turbine blade design of Pedro Melendez (pictured center, left of propeller).

Back in the 1960s, there were curious Wisconsin engineers—and there was then-UW-Madison University Industry Research Program Associate Director Don Novotny

“Generally, companies had an engineer tasked with seeing the future,” says the professor emeritus. “I would set up visits for them to come to UW-Madison and talk to four or five different faculty members in the areas they were interested in.”

The Wisconsin Idea—the university principle of knowledge and technology transfer for the good of all—inspired Novotny as he, then-new faculty member Tom Lipo and colleagues founded the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium, or WEMPEC, in 1981. In exchange for student and faculty support, member companies received access to WEMPEC research with industrial applications.

With the support of more than 80 corporate sponsors, eight faculty members, around 60 graduate students, and international scholars work together at WEMPEC to research and develop the newest technologies in power electronics, actuators, sensors, drives, motion control, and drive applications.

While the consortium’s research areas and number of member companies have grown considerably in the last 31 years, WEMPEC still is all about the Wisconsin Idea, says Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Giri Venkataramanan. “What sparked the idea was this drive to know what the community needed and being responsive to that,” he says.

Often, what Wisconsin companies need is a test bed for new, unproven technologies that could be important for the future of power engineering. For example, 12 years ago, the word “microgrid” was virtually unknown. Venkataramanan and Professor Emeritus Robert Lasseter initially used it in a proposal for research into using a self-contained power grid connected both to on-site renewable energy sources and to the regional power grid to create highly reliable power systems. WEMPEC resources enabled them to make the idea work in the lab with actual hardware.

Professor Emeritus and WEMPEC co-founder Don in the WEMPEC lab.

Professor Emeritus and WEMPEC co-founder Don in the WEMPEC lab.

Seeing the potential for national power infrastructure improvement, WEMPEC industry partners collaborated on microgrid research and helped pursue federal research dollars to build and implement larger projects across the country—including at the Santa Rita jail in Alameda County near San Francisco, and the McGuire Air Force Base Medical Clinic in central New Jersey.

Now, WEMPEC researchers have multiple microgrid projects in the works, including one with United Technologies Research Center of East Hartford, Connecticut. “They’re implementing this microgrid to demonstrate among their own engineers that this technology needs to be a part of their portfolio,” says Venkataramanan.

As a result, an idea that began as a speculative project in a WEMPEC lab could end up inside a high-tech skyscraper lighting the evening skyline of Abu Dhabi. Some of the most globally applicable ideas aren’t the most technologically complex. Graduate student Pedro Melendez’s cheaper, more efficient wind turbine design exemplifies how a basic idea can take flight from the WEMPEC lab into the real world. “We developed a turbine blade constructed out of a PVC pipe,” says Melendez.

“You can carve all three blades out of one pipe, which is much less expensive than the traditional wood design.”

The project earned Melendez an invitation to Zambia in June 2012 to implement his design as part of an ongoing outreach program through Seattle University in Washington.

Ideas like this can and do have global impact—and with the help of faculty, staff, students and industry partners, the WEMPEC of today is producing research that could be significant all over the world from Madison to Zambia. “It was the intent in the beginning for WEMPEC to be a resource for primarily Wisconsin companies,” says Novotny. “But as member companies started to come from all over the country—and then the world—we realized this is one big worldwide group.”

Mark Riechers