There is no greater calling for Dr. Annette von Jouanne and her husband Dr. Alex Yokochi than helping shape the lives of students who will one day become practicing engineers making an impact on the world.
“It’s very rewarding to see students advance and contribute. They get spring-boarded out and spread God’s influence wherever they go in the workplace, whether it’s as professors or in industry,” says von Jouanne, professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE).
After a 22-year career at Oregon State University, von Jouanne and Yokochi felt a draw to equip students on a Christian campus and joined Baylor last fall. Yokochi is a professor of mechanical engineering with a chemical engineering background.
“Baylor’s mission to be a preeminent Christian research university is really in alignment with our vision, as well, and we wanted to be a part
of that,” von Jouanne says.
he focus of von Jouanne’s energy systems research is on power systems, power electronics and drives, and renewable energy.
“She serves as a great role model for young women in ECE,” Dr. Dennis O’Neal, dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science, says.
In 1999, von Jouanne’s experience working on the Ford Escape, the first hybrid electric sport utility vehicle, sparked her passion for sustainable transportation. The work focused on optimizing and testing the car’s electrical generator.
That was followed by an opportunity to contribute to the first hybrid electric tank. She researched advanced power electronic converters and how to minimize electrical signatures for stealth operations.
While at Oregon State, von Jouanne initiated the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, where she focused on wave energy. Waves are predictable, available and have a higher energy density than many other forms of renewable energy.
Fast forward to Baylor, where she and Yokochi have several major projects in progress and collaborate as often as possible.
“We try to collaborate on just about everything because it’s more interesting to work together,” Yokochi says.
In May, they will conclude a $2.5-million, multi-year grant through the U.S. Department of Energy. However, they won’t be waiting for something to do.
In January, they started a new research initiative for the U.S. Navy. A retired bus from the nation’s leading electric bus provider will arrive on campus to provide its fuel cells and batteries for research.
“Both work in the sustainable energy area,” O’Neal says. “Annette from the electrical engineering side, and Alex from the chemical engineering side. Because many of our technical problems in energy are multi-disciplinary, they make a natural team to work on these projects.”
This May, Yokochi and von Jouanne will reach a significant milestone of commercialization after more than 10 years of research and the completion of their current Department of Energy grant. They have focused on the process of converting waste methane into liquid fuel and plan to look at this technology for other applications.
“If you drive around, you see these little sources of flared methane,” Yokochi says. “It’s what we call economically stranded methane. It’s a small stream of what you can think of as natural gas. Because it’s such a small stream, it’s too expensive to actually try to collect and sell for a profit. The goal is to take those small streams and convert them into liquid fuels that can be stored on site at a low cost and high gain.”
Yokochi focuses on the design of the reactor — the device in which the methane chemical conversion from gas to liquid fuels takes place.
In the lab, von Jouanne applies 2,000 volts across the methane gas stream current and ignites a plasma (a gas that is electrically conductive). She carefully monitors the voltage to control the current to make sure it doesn’t cause an arc or result in an intense spark of heat, a bit like a lightning strike but not as powerful.
"It's basically a discussion of important topics in engineering and how that intersects with our future ability to help the world."
“I ignite what’s called a corona, or plasma, across the gas stream. I then need to back off the voltage to make sure I don’t cause an arc, but I maintain the plasma,” she says.
The end result is longer carbon chains such as ethylene, gasoline or diesel. Ethylene is a basic building block of the chemical industry. Depending on how it’s manipulated, it can be converted into materials widely used in plastics, agriculture and numerous products.
Their partnership is successful because they share a commitment to keeping their students at the forefront of their work — in the classroom and the lab.
“We have very complimentary skillsets that help our projects keep moving forward,” von Jouanne says.
Faith is also paramount. Yokochi jokingly calls his sustainable engineering class a philosophy course.
“It’s basically a discussion of important topics in engineering and how that intersects with our future ability to help the world,” he says, pointing out that engineering is about solving problems that will improve the lives of others.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his disciples: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. That verse serves as the motivation for his work, particularly when it comes to thinking about parts of the less-developed world.
Looking to the future, Yokochi hopes to develop a chemical and biological engineering program at Baylor.
“It’s one of the fundamental disciplines in engineering that has the potential to both help humanity and strengthen research at Baylor,” he says.
von Jouanne’s love of helping students is the same.
“When the Lord tells us in Genesis 2:15 that we are to steward, to care for, His creation, He demonstrated that He created us for a tremendous purpose — to bring Him glory and to learn about Him and His creation,” she says. “That is what is very exciting for me — helping students reach their potential in asking questions about the amazing resources God has provided and seeking to answer those questions.”
Electrical and computer engineering doctoral candidate Ryan Collin made the decision to relocate to Waco last June, specifically to work with von Jouanne after learning more about her research.
“I felt that she was so inspiring when I talked with her,” Collin says. “Her faith is first and that comes out in her work all the time. That’s why she’s so great at what she does.”
He works on the methane project to make the power supply in the conversion process as efficient as possible.
“If you get just as much power out of the power supply as you put in the power supply, we say it’s 100 percent efficient,” Collin says. “That’s what we’re shooting for is 100 percent efficiency.”
Madeline Stephens is another doctoral candidate working in von Jouanne’s lab on the new Navy grant that began in January.
“Her vision of utilizing engineering innovation as a way to glorify the gifts we have been given here on earth and preserving them for future generations has opened my eyes to what the engineering profession can be,” Stephens says.
The grant builds on von Jouanne’s research for the all-electric ship, which is powered by variable frequency motor drives. These types of motors and drives can be found in a variety of other applications, including large HVAC systems.
"Her vision of utilizing engineering innovation as a way to glorify the gifts we have been given here on earth and preserving them for future generations has opened my eyes to what the engineering profession can be."
The Navy’s Zumwalt destroyer series on which von Jouanne works is propelled by two 46,000-horsepower motors. The motors are designed for smooth sine waves, like those found in the outlets in a home, but of higher voltage and power levels.
“For fast speed and torque control of electric motors now, we use a variable frequency drive, a VFD, using switch-mode technology,” von Jouanne says, noting that the process results in stress on the motor insulation and bearings. Her research started in the 1990s with VFDs using silicon-based switches.
Today, those switches have progressed to using silicon carbide (SiC), a semiconductor material comprised of silicon and carbon that allows the motor drive system to switch faster due to shorter on/off times and fewer losses in the drive.
“When you have fewer losses in the drive, it means that you can have higher power in a smaller volume and lower weight. Thus, these drives have higher power densities,” von Jouanne says. If the power distribution components are smaller, the ship weighs less, is more efficient, and has more space for other needs.
The grant that started in January focuses specifically on the motor drive systems and preventing damage that can occur to the bearings inside the motor with the application of SiC drives.
“We can get electric discharge machining — arcing damage — inside the bearing, which over time causes motor failure,” von Jouanne says.
The Navy is interested in the characterization of the bearing wear in order to prevent motor failures. von Jouanne and Yokochi also have contracted to teach two short courses on VFD application issues at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Philadelphia with the second course being held this spring.
Genesis 1:28 says, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’” That verse holds deep meaning for von Jouanne, who sees it as a divine invitation.
“Subdue in the Hebrew is that God has purposefully designed into the earth unrealized potential for us to discover and activate and utilize for man’s good and God’s glory,” she says.
In keeping with her research interests, von Jouanne will have a lab in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC). Her faculty appointment is supported with research space and graduate and undergraduate students who share her passion for energy research
When her lab in the BRIC is complete in April, von Jouanne will be able to drive a car through a bay door and onto a platform that contains a chassis dynamometer, which is somewhat like a rolling road, with each wheel riding on rollers. The dynamometer measures the speed, torque and power of electric vehicle motors and generators. The controlled environment simulates how a car handles on the road and tests its performance.
Her electric vehicle research is two-fold. It will include the transfer of energy between an electric vehicle and the power grid.
“Not only is the power coming in the direction of grid to vehicle, but power can flow back from vehicle to the grid,” von Jouanne says.
Because an electric car has stored energy, the power grid could pull from the car’s battery during times of peak demand and charge
electric vehicles when there’s excess power, creating a bi-directional energy flow.
In the future, a customer’s contract with a utility company might grant permission for the customer’s battery to be used as a distributed energy resource to firm up the grid in times of need, von Jouanne says.
Another aspect of her electric vehicle research is on fast charging stations and how to bring them to the mainstream, with a target of charging a vehicle in 15 minutes or less. Currently cars need as much as 12 hours to charge, depending on the battery size and power capability of the station.
Proterra, a major electric bus producer, is donating one of their busses to Baylor for various professors to use in their respective research. Because the battery management system is proprietary, when a bus is retired, the batteries must be disconnected. The batteries will serve as local energy storage for von Jouanne in the lab, imitating fast vehicle charging using both the grid and batteries.
When it comes to the Baylor campus of the future, von Jouanne imagines two innovative energy solutions.
The first is fast-charging electric vehicle stations that reduce the time it takes for a car to charge.
The second is a day within the next 10 years in which an autonomous slow-driving shuttle transports researchers from the main Baylor campus to their labs at the BRIC. When the vehicle pulls over a charging pad at the BRIC, it could automatically charge without needing to be plugged in.
“The mind is such an incredible creation that God has given us,” von Jouanne says. “Only the mind can create new knowledge. It’s the mind that is the most powerful in order to ask new questions and seek new answers. For me, I have always been interested in all things energy related.”