Dan Ludois receives NSF CAREER Award

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Dan Ludois receives NSF CAREER Award

Most of the technology we rely on ultimately depends on motors converting electrical power into mechanical power and generators doing the reverse. Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Dan Ludois spends much of his time as a researcher questioning the basis of these electric machines, especially the materials they use and the physical forces that make them go. 

“When people think of an electric motor, they think of a big piece of steel wrapped in a lot of wire, and that’s the way it’s been for well over a century,” Ludois says. 

Electric motors use magnetic fields acting on electric currents in copper windings to make torque, and to get that magnetic field, they often require rare-earth element permanent magnets.  These materials and the copper windings can incur expensive manufacturing or integration processes. 

If we can obviate the need for magnetism, Ludois says, then we can significantly reduce the cost and environmental impact of making electric motors. “Instead of something being made out of semi-precious metals, you can make it from very common, domestically sourced pieces,” he says. “You could potentially make a motor out of plastic and injection-mold it, or use a variety of other techniques that lend themselves to mass manufacturing relatively easily and cheaply.”

Ludois is currently exploring how to create torque using electric fields, generated with the help of dielectric fluid and a much smaller quantity of conducting metal, thus eliminating magnets and copper windings. Having proven the concept in his UW-Madison lab and in his work at the spinoff company C-Motive Technologies, Ludois now wants to develop the analytical tools needed to design electric field-based motors that can serve on a practical scale. The research is supported by a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award. Ludois’ research is also part of the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC), a long-running UW-Madison institution that builds partnerships between academia and industry in the power-electronics and electric machines areas.  WEMPEC’s strong track record in power provides ideal resources to support Ludois’ work. 

At this stage, Ludois is especially interested in fine-tuning the geometry of the components in his motor designs to create the most torque. But since his motor concept is a departure from the way motors have always worked, the tools for modeling and designing these new motors don’t really exist yet. “There aren’t any good analytical or physical models for these things, so a lot of this work is going to be creating the tools required to do that,” Ludois says.

The CAREER Award will also fund three educational initiatives. Ludois wants to work with Town Center staff in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to develop energy-conversion demonstrations for K-12 students. He’s also working on redesigning an electrical and computer engineering seminar (ECE 600) to focus the course more around research methods. Additionally, he’s planning a more adult-oriented series of “science café” events where members of the public can meet UW-Madison faculty and “shoot from the hip” with questions about research. He hopes such events will help the public feel more of a meaningful connection with the UW-Madison research enterprise.

These educational activities, just like the research, are all about the profound importance of power conversion in the modern world. Ludois admits that challenging the principles we use to harness power conversion is a heady undertaking. 

“The thing that’s exciting to me is getting to try to change something that has been at the base of our technological society for the last 130 years,” Ludois says. “From that perspective, I still can’t quite wrap my head around it.”

Scott Gordon