Jef Beerten, of the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) and EnergyVille, Belgium, was the first recipient of the ABB Research Award in Honor of Hubertus von Gruenberg. He was recognized for his doctoral thesis “Modeling and Control of DC Grids” in summer of 2016, chosen from 69 applicants from leading institutions around the world, representing a wide range of disciplines.
Dedicated in honor of former ABB chairman Dr. Hubertus von Gruenberg, the award recognizes outstanding academic work in energy and automation and is accompanied by one of the highest research grants of its kind. It will be awarded in 2019 for the second time.
"I love to dedicate myself to a topic, to look closely and to discover the fundamental challenges. The more complicated, the better. That's why high-voltage direct current (HVDC) networks are so exciting," says Prof. Dr. Jef Beerten with a twinkle in his eye, explaining why he chose this particular topic as a research field.
The 33-year-old electrical engineer Jef Beerten is the first winner of the ABB Research Award in honor of Hubertus von Gruenberg, which is presented every three years. The award ceremony took place in Zurich in October 2016. With the grant of US$ 300,000, the ABB Research Award is one of the world's highest endowed research prizes offered by a company. The second application phase for 2019 has just begun and is going to end on January 31st, 2019.
Jef Beerten, born and raised in Belgium in 1985, studied at KU Leuven, where he earned his master's degree in electrical engineering with top marks in 2008. "Then I went abroad", said Beerten, "first I spent three months as a guest researcher at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, before returning to KU Leuven for my doctorate dissertation". His PhD supervisor, Professor Dr. Ir. Ronnie Belmans and the examination board awarded him a summa cum laude doctorate in 2013 on the topic "Modelling and Control of DC Grids". Beerten wanted to continue his research in this field and went to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim as a postdoctoral fellow for a year in 2014 and 2015. Back in Belgium, he became an important team member both at KU Leuven and EnergyVille, a research collaboration located at the Thor Science Park in Genk, where institutes, start-ups and companies jointly research and develop energy topics. "I have dedicated myself to the dynamics and modeling of DC and AC networks," Beerten explains his special topic, "because I am convinced that HVDC technology is becoming more and more important due to the increasing demand for energy worldwide.
ABB is a pioneer in high-voltage direct current technology and has been a global leader in this field for more than 60 years. So it's not surprising that Jef Beerten became aware of the research award on ABB's website in the summer of 2015. "When I saw the announcement, I saw my chance to take a significant step forward in my field of research. The ABB Research Award is very prestigious for any ambitious scientist." He was one of 69 applicants for the prize and convinced the international jury.
Beerten received the news of the prize on a weekend trip with the family. Belmans, his supervisor, got the message at the same time as him and called him immediately to congratulate. "I asked him several times in disbelief," the prizewinner remembers, until Belmans instructed him: "Look in your emails if you don't believe it. Afterwards, Beerten remembers, the most exhausting task was not to reveal anything until the official announcement. All the greater was the joy and pride in the college when the award ceremony could be followed via live streaming from Zurich. "All my colleagues, friends and the entire family were really happy for me. There was a lot of partying", Beerten laughs and remembers October 2016 with pleasure.
Since then, Jef Beerten has invested the prize money over a period of three years in the optimal modelling of HVDC converters and is confident that things will continue after that. "Here at EnergyVille, we maintain close contact with industry and are in close contact with the needs of the future energy industry. Our topic has steadily gained in importance in recent years. With the feed-in of renewable energies, it is even more difficult to guarantee a stable power grid."
He has been a professor at KU Leuven for a year and visibly enjoys it. It is a responsible task to motivate a team of young scientists, to explain the challenging energy topics to students and also to manage international cooperation. "It is precisely the combination," Beerten says, "between thinking out of the box and keeping an eye on the specific needs of industry. That makes it a special challenge."
Whether he can also imagine a life outside the academic world, he answers calmly: "The position is still new and I find it very challenging and at the same time satisfying. I don't get the idea of changing my mind, but I don't want to exclude it forever either." Here he has the perfect environment to work together on research and with colleagues in order to advance the topic.
Professor Ronnie Belmans, to whom Beerten is closely associated not only scientifically but also personally, plays an important role here. "Jef does not only have the intellectual qualities of an outstanding scientist," says the mentor, "he is also an interesting and open-minded personality as a private person. Both are united by their love of music, especially rock music. There were random meetings on live concerts of AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen or Roger Waters from Pink Floyd. "And for relaxation," Jef Beerten reveals, "we started to brew beer in the circle of colleagues at some point. And there are always occasions to justify the effort." Whether a colleague emigrates to Australia - the brewer is now missing painfully, he notes - or when his first child was born nine months ago: for each occasion, a different beer has been brewed.
Beerten is a family man and so it is given that he commutes between the Leuven and Genk locations so that the center of his life near KU Leuven remains intact. "Children have a great impact on your life. This is also true for me. Since I have my own family, my hobbies have only played a minor role." This also applies to Beerten’s talent for languages. He speaks nine languages fluently. That's how it turned out. In every country where he stayed longer as a student or scientist, he wanted to learn the language in order to really be able to participate. "When I have more time again, I would like to learn Russian until I can read Dostojewski in the original. And Mandarin would certainly also be useful for my professional career. Because the Chinese are now world class in HVDC research."
When asked how important the prize was and is for him, it gushes out of him: "The prize has inspired my scientific work over three years. The results flow into the application". In this way, it makes an important contribution to the responsible use of energy, because electricity grids are always about transmitting electricity with as little losses as possible - and that is an enormous advantage of HVDC, especially at long distances.
The award is an incentive and a signal to the young scientists, the postdocs, that it is worthwhile to keep one's eye on a topic and stay focused. "Dream," is his call to the next applicants for the ABB Research Award, "but stay realistic in what you have in mind. And stay focused to bring your topic forward."