Freeland resident wins international engineering award

John Brunke of Freeland will receive the 2011 IEEE Herman Halperin Electric Transmission and Distribution Award in July. - Photo courtesy of Chelle Brunke
John Brunke of Freeland will receive the 2011 IEEE Herman Halperin Electric Transmission and Distribution Award in July.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Chelle Brunke

His mind may win him awards for highly technical feats of the imagination, but his heart wins him bigger kudos for being precisely in the right place.

Freeland resident John Brunke is known in engineering circles as a power pioneer. Brunke was recently notified that he had won the 2011 IEEE Herman Halperin Electric Transmission and Distribution Award, which he will accept on July 26 in Detroit, Mich.

“Chelle is going with me. I really think she should get the award,” Brunke said.

He referred to his wife of 34 years, Chelle Brunke, who is her husband’s number one cheerleader. The couple relocated to the island from Oregon six years ago.

Chelle summed up her husband this way.

“He’s a very sweet man. He can fix anything and when I realized he was such a competent soul and so decent, he was mine,” she said.

“He was also a lot of fun and good-looking,” she added. “But there are plenty of good-looking men who can’t fix anything.”

He fixed the closet door to her apartment on their third date more than three decades ago. And, apparently, Brunke can fix very large conductors of power, as well.

Brunke received the award for his contributions to high-voltage equipment technology which have improved power quality and system reliability.

With contributions spanning more than 30 years, Brunke is known for developing technology that in many cases was ahead of its time. He was a pioneer of controlled switching of shunt capacitors and large power transformers.

Controlled switching is the switching on/off of high-voltage equipment and lines at a precise instant when the transient generated by the switching is reduced or eliminated. This reduces power system transients, and resulting stresses on the system, and improves power quality and reliability, while lowering equipment costs.

Brunke has also been instrumental in standards harmonization and cooperation between international committees responsible for switchgear technology.

Although that sounds incredibly impressive — what does it mean?

“Standards harmonization … OK,” Brunke prepared to explain.

“Standards are documents that make things common between different manufacturer’s products,” he said.

“I helped write these for electrical equipment. An example of more common things that are ‘standardized’ are all household appliances as far as using the same voltage and having the same plug connector for plugging them in.

“I am not sure there is a written standard, but all toilet paper rolls are the same size,” he explained.

“Imagine if all the manufacturers made toilet paper rolls all different sizes. Most things are standardized — nuts and bolts, car tires, computers, etc. In the U.S., we have IEEE and ANSI standards for electrical equipment; the rest of the world uses IEC standards. So their toilet paper may not fit on our roll holders, as far as electrical equipment is concerned.”

Brunke organized a meeting in Washington, D.C. of the IEEE and IEC groups and started working on making U.S. standards harmonize with the rest of the world’s.

All that is pretty technical, but there’s another side to Brunke. He does some cool stuff, too, he said, such as being a black belt, a private pilot, an oil painter, making flutes, sailing, hunting and scuba diving.

He’s also a born innovator.

Brunke’s love of technical shenanigans began in the eighth grade when his grandfather gave him an old radio, which he proceeded to take apart.

“Just fiddling around with the parts I managed to give myself a shock using a transformer and a lantern battery,” Brunke recalled.

“I took it to my science class and had them all hold hands, and the two people on each end placed their fingers on the terminals I had put on a cigar box that held my battery and transformer. I gave the entire class a small shock at once,” Brunke said.

“This was cool! I was hooked. From then on I was working to keep people from getting shocked — guilt perhaps,” he said.

From that moment, Brunke has been thinking outside the box and winning more awards than he has space for on his walls.

He is also getting a second award while in Detroit for his chairmanship of a group that is working to rewrite and harmonize standards for gas insulated switchgear for use from 52,000 to 800,000 volts.

“I am a little embarrassed about getting two awards,” he said. “Oh, well.”

This self-deprecating attitude toward his accomplishments is wholly sincere and Brunke is almost bashful in his demeanor when talking about his the praise.

He lauds his wife for getting him to where he is today, considering his long career, which forced him to travel extensively all around the world. She managed to achieve a bachelor’s degree along the way, and see that their two sons made it to college.

“It takes a good woman like Chelle to make that work,” Brunke said.

“She really made it possible for me to have this career. That is probably why she is proud of it; she worked pretty hard to make it possible,” he added.

Brunke has only encouragement for youths considering careers in science and technology.

“With anything, do not think that you are not smart or capable enough to do something, even something that seems very difficult,” Brunke said.

“You just have to be willing to work hard and not give up. For an engineer or scientist I think it is more important to be curious than smart. I think Albert Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge.”

After retiring from Bonneville Power Administration, where he was a team leader for the high voltage equipment group, Brunke consulted for Siemens Energy for a few years and is currently a semi-retired consulting engineer.

When talking about all the things that he did in his field, he stressed the fact that he was always a part of team.

“It is a lot like team sports,” Brunke said of his work.

“I am a high voltage guy, others are the computer guys, others are the testers, electricians, and some do administrative work. All are important parts of the team.”

To young people who aspire to be a part of such a team, he has simple advice. Don’t give up.

“Engineering is a game of visualizing possibilities in your mind,” Brunke said.

“I think you have to be positive about the use. One technology that was my master thesis project in 1980 was really not used widely until probably 1995. Now it is the standard. It was hard to do it with 1980 technology — no computers — but we made it work,” he said.




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