Dordt College News

Blow, wind, blow

May 14, 2010

The Jonkmans help make windmills go

"Our goal is to bring the cost of renewable energy down,” say Jason (’98) and Bonnie (Runia, ’98) Jonkman.

The Jonkmans work for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in its National Wind Technology Center in Golden, Colorado. Their applied research is helping solve technical problems for the developing renewable energy industry. Bonnie has spent the last seven years analyzing data to create mathematical models of atmospheric turbulence. She is the lead developer of TurbSim, a computer code used to simulate the conditions that help engineers like Jason develop software that connects wind inflow with the wind turbine systems needed to produce usable energy. A senior engineer at NREL, Jason is the lead developer of physics-based computer simulation software for onshore- and offshore-based wind turbines.

Jason (’98) and Bonnie (Runia, ’98) Jonkman work in offices that are only twenty feet apart. For some couples, working together professionally isn’t a good idea, but Jason and Bonnie like it—even though it means that they sometimes have to make a conscious effort to leave their work at the office. They had no idea when they graduated that some day they would work on the same research team.“At NREL, we do the high-risk research that manufacturers can’t afford to do and still offer affordable products,” Jason says.

Jason and Bonnie and their colleagues need to be looking five to ten years ahead. Bonnie’s research has focused on developing better models of the wind; Jason’s Ph.D. work and his research have focused on offshore floating turbines.

“There is a lot of potential but also a lot of risk in putting turbines offshore,” he says. Researchers need to anticipate and solve a range of problems related to aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, control systems, and structural dynamics before businesses will be able to design and begin large-scale manufacturing of cost-effective floating wind energy systems.

Being part of the NREL team isn’t far from what Jason had hoped for his career, and both Jason and Bonnie feel incredibly blessed to be able to work at something they feel passionate about. It was Jason’s interests that landed them at NREL, but Bonnie’s skills in mathematics and programming became a perfect fit when her current position opened up. (It was Jason who told NREL he knew of someone who might be a good candidate for the position.) Bonnie always liked programming, and her master’s degree in mathematics gave her the modeling skills needed for the job.

Jason’s interest in wind began as a student at Dordt. A native of Washington State, he immediately noticed the often steady and strong Iowa winds. In fact, his senior design project team obtained a scholarship to analyze and test a wind turbine.

The commitment to renewable energy, though, came from Dr. Charles Adams, whom Jason credits with instilling in him a passion for using creation’s resources in stewardly ways. Both Jason and Bonnie believe that the kinds of jobs they sought and the way they choose to live their lives has been deeply shaped by their Dordt education. That education helped them see that every part of their lives needs to be lived in service to God. It also gave them the technical skills to participate in work that they believe makes a difference in today’s world, they say.

“We saw our professors living out their faith in their lives and in their teaching,” says Bonnie. “My mathematics background at Dordt more than prepared me for graduate school.” She wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that students interested in mathematics and computer science get their undergraduate degree from Dordt College. She should know, she says, having had to teach calculus to first-year university students as a graduate student with no teaching experience. She’s grateful she got to learn calculus from an experienced professor who loved his subject and wanted his students to do the same.

The holistic view of life they embraced in college continues to shape them in a variety of ways.

“Many scientists are driven by personal ambition and competition because they want to make a name for themselves by coming up with results no one else has,” they say. Jason and Bonnie believe that work is more enjoyable and less stressful when it is done out of a sense of calling—in their case, to be good stewards of the resources with which God blessed his world and its people. They love their work and spend long hours at it—sometimes too long, as their BlackBerries could attest, but they also know that it is not what makes them who they are and that their lives are fuller than just their work. They stay involved in their church, playing piano, helping with sound, leading worship. And yes, Jason often spends extra time “working,” consulting and sharing information with people across the country and around the world who are trying to make renewable energy more available.

“If you don’t feel committed to what you’re doing, it’s easy to burn out or focus on yourself,” he says.

Jason and Bonnie realize how blessed they are.

“I’ve always wanted to do work that I enjoy and that I feel passionate about,” says Jason. “I have to say that what we have is beyond what I hoped and prayed for.” They’ve been able to take their interests and training in science and problem solving, use them productively and give leadership in their professions. In fact, their work spans the globe. Jason regularly travels to Europe. This spring they expect to spend several months in Denmark, working on a collaborative project with that country’s national research laboratory.

“They’re doing some great work in wind energy there,” Jason says. Both look forward to the opportunity to build relationships across national lines and to work with and learn from others who are also committed to further developing renewable energy.

In a nutshell

Bonnie graduated from Dordt with mathematics and computer science majors and earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Colorado State University. She has spent much of her time at NREL doing research on the effect of atmospheric turbulence on the dynamic response of wind turbines. She has helped process and analyze meteorological data collected from several experiments, including sonic anemometer, LIDAR, and SODAR measurements from the Lamar Low-Level Jet Project in southeastern Colorado. Bonnie is the lead developer of NREL’s TurbSim computer code, which numerically simulates stochastic (random), full-field, turbulent wind. She also works on the other NREL/NTWC design codes and leads the coding development of the AeroDyn aerodynamics code overhaul.

Jason left Dordt as an engineering major and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering sciences from the University of Colorado. He has developed simulation software, published many papers on wind turbine modeling, and helped with certification of wind turbine loads. He also leads an International Energy Agency research group developing simulation models for fixed and floating offshore turbines and leads a team responsible for overhauling the AeroDyn wind turbine rotor aerodynamics software library. His Ph.D. dissertation, “Dynamics Modeling and Loads Analysis of an Offshore Floating Wind Turbine,” was awarded the European Academy of Wind Energy’s “Excellent Young Wind Doctor Award” in 2008. He also received the outstanding paper award at the 2007 ASME Wind Energy Symposium.


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