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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

UW professors honored with NAE nominations

Conducting great research and making exceptional advancements in the field of engineering has earned two UW-Madison professors recognition by membership into an elite institution known as the National Academy of Engineering. Raymond J. Fonck and Thomas M. Jahns were announced as two of the 67 newly nominated members to the 2015 Class of the NAE, a profound professional distinction and high honor in the field.

The NAE specifically honors engineers whose contributions in research, practice or education have exceeded expectations. For Fonck, the academy noted his developments in fusion plasma spectroscopy and diagnostics and his work in leading the U.S. fusion program into the burning plasma era, while they celebrated Jahns’ advancements of permanent magnet machines and power electronics with drives for transportation and industrial application.

Fonck, a Badger alumnus, joined the Department of Engineering Physics in 1989 as a professor. Through his career here he has impacted both research at the university and in the community, he began the Pegasus Toroidal Experiment, which utilizes fusion research with the ultimate goal of creating an environmentally friendly energy source.

“Over the years, [I’ve done] mainly experimental research in the high temperature plasma science,” said Fonck.

“Most of the matter, over 99 percent of the matter in the universe, is in the plasma state and we need the plasma state for thermonuclear fusion energy,” said Fonck. “Our goal is to create an energy source using fusion energy.”

“Besides the research, I’ve been very involved with the national politics on fusion and that’s probably what the NAE reflected on as much as my research,” Fonck said.

As for his work in the community, he chaired the National Research Council study on whether the U.S. should get involved in a research study, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which involves seven national entities and represents over half of the world’s population. He also started the United States Burning Plasma Organization, the U.S.’s research arm for ITER, for which he took a year and a half leave from UW-Madison to work for the federal government as an associate director for the program.

“Assuming the U.S. stays committed to fusion energy development, I’d be delighted to continue. We’ve got great students. Students are really excited to get involved in this kind of work. They see it as a hopeful thing to do for mankind,” said Fonck.

This isn’t Fonck’s first encounter with the NAE either. For six years, he was a member on the Board on Physics and Astronomy for the NAE where he provided scientific advice to the government.

Jahns, the second nominee, continues to contribute greatly to the department of electrical and computer engineering as well as conducting research through the Wisconsin Energy Institute, while also serving as the co-director of the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium.

He focuses his studies in developing permanent magnet machines that are used in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles. Jahns’s advancements have made him a pioneer in emerging alternative energy technologies, especially in dynamic grid systems.

After completing his studies at MIT, he worked at the General Electric corporate and development center in upstate New York, getting his feet wet in the industry side before joining the research half of power electronics at UW-Madison in 1998.

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“Power electronics is what’s referred to as an embedded technology. In other words, not many people really know what it is. It’s becoming increasingly important for a whole range of applications,” Jahns said.

Power electronics are especially important in hybrid vehicles, which require them to operate their specialized machines, according to Jahns.

As for permanent magnets, Jahns has been working with them for years. Early on, not much was known about such magnets, however, as time progressed, so did the technology and, in 1998, a breakthrough of sorts occurred in the development of hybrid and electric vehicles; the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight. These permanent magnet machines can be made into small and efficient batteries that successfully work in vehicles from small cars to large vehicles, such as earth moving equipment and trains.

“I’m a big believer that more of our transportation is going to be electrified,” Jahns said. “Its going to be influenced in indirect ways by electricity ... What’s less well known is that electricity is being introduced in ships and aircrafts.”

Jahns is further involved with “integration of renewable energy into the grid” as power electronics plays a crucial role in the building of grid systems for things like solar panels.

“Batteries’ cells produce a low voltage known as DC, direct current, whereas our electric system is built around AC, alternating current. In order to make that conversion from the raw form of the power that comes from a solar cell or from batteries or fuel cells, it has to get processed and converted into a form that can be connected to the utility system. Power electronics plays a critical role [in this organization],” said Jahns.

Not only has Jahns’s work help make such advancements, he is also co-director of WEMPEC, a partnership between industry and academia which is approaching its 35th anniversary. WEMPEC teams up with 85 to 90 companies to help link them to research as well as students, as UW-Madison is one of the only of its type with a program on power electronics with an emphasis electric machines.

“Its a win-win-win all around. We’re able to help our students find top-notch jobs, we’re able to do new research ourselves, so that’s exciting for us as faculty members, but then we help the companies we work for, both in terms of the research supply as well as supplying them with their future workforce,” said Jahns.

He has also been active in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers,, a large international organization where he was the president of the Power Electronics Society and served on the board of directors.

Jahns, after spending half his career in industry and the other half in academia, utilizes his experience to guide the 70 or so graduate students in the department.

“I’m very grateful that over the course of my career that I’ve worked with some really excellent people every step along the way, starting from the time working at GE,” said Jahns. “Since coming here to the University I feel very fortunate, working with such a world class group of faculty colleagues as well as really bright students who are all very dedicated to accomplishing some of the things that we’re working on here.”

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