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Jennifer Franck
April 25, 2024

With NSF CAREER award, Jennifer Franck aims to advance renewable marine energy

Written By: Adam Malecek


When it comes to renewable energy, wind and solar are the most prominent technologies. But marine energy—energy harvested from moving water in rivers, tidal channels and oceans—could provide another source of renewable electricity to complement these well-established technologies.

That’s why Jennifer Franck, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is working to advance marine energy technology. With a National Science Foundation CAREER award, Franck is investigating a technology called an oscillating foil that can operate as a turbine to harvest energy from rivers or tidal channels.

An oscillating foil is essentially a flapping underwater wing inspired by bird flight and the propulsion of fish and aquatic mammals. “It turns out, if you flap at a slower rate, you can transition from this propulsion mode typically used by fish (they are exerting energy to flap) into an energy-harvesting mode, where the energy is extracted from the moving water,” Franck says.

Specifically, Franck will research the unsteady flow physics within a system where multiple oscillating foils are very close to one another and are cooperating in a constructive manner. She will use a computational model combined with artificial intelligence to uncover methods for improving the overall energy production. “The system will continually learn which parameters achieve the greatest success, allowing us to optimize the system,” Franck says. “And the AI will control the foils to change their motion—their speed or flapping trajectory—to achieve the best efficiency.”

For the education and outreach element of Franck’s CAREER award, she will expand efforts to improve recruitment, retention and climate for women in mechanical engineering, and will develop renewable energy modules for K-12 outreach. In addition, she is developing a new design course, EMA 200: Introduction to Mechanics and Aerospace, for first-year students in the engineering mechanics (and aerospace engineering option) major. “This is exciting since it gives students in the major a way to connect with each other and the engineering mechanics faculty much earlier in their progression,” Franck says. “Building community and having a sense of belonging has shown to improve retention of diverse populations and I hope this class can fulfill that role.”