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WEMPEC students doing research
May 9, 2022

Journal dedicates issue to WEMPEC’s 40-year influence on electric machines and power electronics

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The April 2022 issue of the IEEE Journal of Emerging and Selected Topics in Power Electronics celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC). The publication, which received 143 submissions and published 55 papers from researchers in 19 countries, is a singular honor for WEMPEC, which is an educational and research leader in electric machines, power electronics, actuators, sensors, drives, motion control and drive applications.

In the 1970s, electrical engineering departments across academia were transitioning away from studying “copper wire” technologies like motors and electrical systems in favor of silicon-based tech like computer chips and other microelectronics. Leaders and faculty in the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering, however, believed there was still a strong need to push the state of the art in electric machines and power electronics, especially since many of those manufacturers were and are based in Wisconsin.

That’s why, in 1981, Professors Donald Novotny and Thomas Lipo founded WEMPEC. Funded by more than 70 industry partners, the industry/academic consortium has a broad mandate to train the next generation of electric machine and power engineers, advance the state of the art in the fields it covers, and share that knowledge with industry.

By any measure, WEMPEC has been wildly successful, training more than 600 graduate students and hosting just as many visiting scholars whose impact is felt throughout industry and academia. Its research has led to new generations of electric machines, and in recent years, as the need for renewable energy, electric vehicles and energy efficiency has increased, WEMPEC’s advances and students have become even more influential.

Giri Venkataramanan
Director Giri Venkataramanan is leading a new generation of WEMPEC faculty and students in research on sustainable electric machines and power electronics.

We spoke with current WEMPEC director Giri Venkataramanan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, about the consortium’s legacy, and where it’s headed over the next 40 years.

Why do you think WEMPEC has remained relevant over the decades?
One of the most unique features of WEMPEC is that it is not mission-centric. At other institutions, research groups get funding to study one thing, like wireless charging for electric vehicles. WEMPEC does not have a defined focus. It’s adaptable with the needs of society and the interests of faculty and students.

That freedom has allowed us to work on different projects and take major risks to prepare engineers and leaders for this industry. We’re entering our third generation; the first was focused on industrial energy-efficient drives and motors; the second focused on wind power and electric transportation. It’s hard to predict where we’re headed, but we’re at the cutting edge, and our faculty and students are working to create innovations that will have an impact over the next 20 years and beyond.

What do you consider WEMPEC’s greatest accomplishment?
Our No. 1 contribution is our graduates. Whether they go into the energy industry, solar power, trucking, electric transportation, industrial drives or grid controls, it is our excellence in training students that is perhaps the thing that sets us apart from any program anywhere in the world. We have established a reputation for training people who can take an idea through the entire spectrum from concept to realization and that gives them an edge.

What is the impact of WEMPEC on industry?
Our innovations range across the board in wind power, power supplies for motor drives and controls, variable speed electric motor drives, electric transportation and the design of machines that are now in all electric vehicles today. In the future, we’re looking into microgrids and solar inverters.

Do you know how computers have little stickers that says “Intel Inside?” If we had a similar sticker that said “WEMPEC Inside,” it would show up in many places you wouldn’t expect. You could see it many brands of electric cars, electrified mining trucks, high efficiency air-conditioning systems for commercial buildings, pumps used in sewage treatment plants and building elevators, to name just a few.

What impact has WEMPEC had on Wisconsin?
Geographically, we are at the center of an arc around Lake Michigan that represents the electric machines industry. This is where it happens. We’re a global organization with an international reputation, but we are in Wisconsin. We are constantly working with companies in Milwaukee and other parts of the state, as well as Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, to improve these technologies.

Over the last 40 years, our industry sponsors have pledged $20 million to our gift fund along with about another $20 million for specific projects and we’ve received the same amount from government grants. We’ve been really good stewards of that money in training our students to advance these technologies, and that’s why sponsors keep coming back year after year.

What’s the significance of being honored by the IEEE Journal of Emerging and Selected Topics in Power Electronics?
It is a big deal. It’s unprecedented. The papers are all solid contributions and an across-the-board representation of what WEMPEC is today. So, it’s truly an honor, recognition and acknowledgement from the broader community of what UW-Madison has been doing right.

Where does the consortium go from here?
In the last three years, our founders, including Robert Lorenz, Thomas Lipo and Don Novotny passed away; our director, Professor Thomas Jahns, retired; and our executive director moved on to private industry. Our next generation faculty include Jean van Bladel Associate Professors Bulent Sarlioglu and Dan Ludois, and Assistant Professor Eric Severson, who are all growing their academic careers. I’d say that we are entering our next phase of growth, and will not be surprised if we hit 100 sponsors before WEMPEC reaches its 50th anniversary.

We are now preparing for the future and working through a lot of new initiatives, and that’s exciting. Currently, we can’t meet the industry demand for our students, so the accelerated master’s program is growing and continues to grow.

At a certain point, many universities stopped studying electric machines to focus on silicon. Forty years ago, the leadership on our campus had the foresight to say this is worth keeping. They made that choice. Because of the support the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and College of Engineering have given us, we’ve been able to continue our excellence over the years and it’s continuing to pay off. Other places are scrambling to get federal and state resources to come up to the level where we are. We got a 40-year head start, and we are continuing to add to our momentum.