Knabach Award / Former SDSU prof Ropp cited for Excellence in Power

Michael Ropp
Michael Ropp

Eleven years after his mentor was honored, former South Dakota State University associate professor Mike Ropp received the Wayne E. Knabach Excellence in Power Award.

It was presented at the South Dakota Regional Power Conference, which this year was a virtual event Oct. 5.

Ropp taught in the electrical engineering department for 11 years, owned his own Brookings-based power technology business for 10 years and since November 2019 has been a principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was developing patented technologies even as a Georgia Tech graduate student.

Steve Hietpas, director of Center for Power Systems Studies, which organizes the conference, said the research contributions Ropp has made in the last 25 years make him “a leader within the electric industry.”


Mentored by Knabach

When Ropp joined the faculty in January 1999, Knabach had been retired from the department for four years, but directed the Center for Power Systems Studies until 1997 and continued to keep in touch with the faculty. He received a lifetime achievement award from the center in 2009.

“I may have been the last new faculty member to have been mentored by Wayne,” said Ropp, who grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and went to Georgia Tech for his master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering (1996 and 1998, respectively). It was an informal mentoring relationship that turned into a friendship through the years, Ropp said.

“Sometimes I would call him, sometimes he would just show up in my office unannounced. I talked to him a lot about student advising” as Knabach was well-known for the relationships he built with students. “Wayne was such a gentle person, but also knew his stuff. He loved to talk about hair-brained ideas, but he also would bring it back to the practical,” Ropp said.


Mentored by Kurtenbach

Another of Ropp’s mentors is former electrical engineering faculty member and Daktronics co-founder Aelred Kurtenbach.

His advice came into play when Ropp decided to leave the university to form Northern Plains Power Technologies in March 2009. The business, which Ropp operated until taking the post at Sandia, quickly developed a niche in new technologies for integrating independent power systems into the national electrical grid.

Kurtenbach, who taught at SDSU for a few years before creating Daktronics, told Ropp, “‘If South Dakota State really does want economic development, we can’t just graduate students. We have to graduate faculty that go out and establish these businesses,’” Ropp shared.

In addition to wanting to put his personal and professional knowledge to work in the private sector, Ropp also saw Northern Plains Power Technologies as a lever for economic development.

At its peak, the company had 10 employees, mostly former State students, and was doing business coast to coast as well in Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, he said.


Starting a new chapter

But at the end of 10 years, the timing also was right, personally and professionally, for Ropp to join the Sandia National Laboratory, which he had worked for as a subcontractor for many years. Ropp closed his business and worked remotely from Brookings while his twins finished high school. The family moved to Albuquerque July 11, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has continued to primarily work from home.

Sandia is operated and managed by National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International. Sandia operates as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and supports numerous federal, state and local government agencies and organizations.

Ropp’s role as technical researcher is to find “new and better ways to do things,” particularly in the area of power electronics.

Presently, he is working with a group that has created new materials and devices that can raise the switching frequency of power electronics. Increased switching frequency reduces the size of associated components such as the inductors, transformers and capacitors in order to reduce space requirements on the board and case. However, converters operating at higher frequencies often have reduced efficiency, hence the challenge for researchers like Ropp.

The main application of this work is in electric vehicle drives—in other words, all the components in an electric car between the motor and battery as well as controlling flow to battery.