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Author: Annika Weder
Julie Lundquist headshot, outdoors in front of a picket fence.
"I want to solve these big picture problems, and knowing the work that we're doing can make an impact in the world inspires my research."—Julie Lundquist, sustainable energy researcher

Update: Read the story and then check out a Q&A with Julie Lundquist at ROSEI’s site. 

When she was an undergraduate student studying English literature, Julie Lundquist added a physics major because she enjoyed math and solving physics problems—though she says they didn’t excite her the way certain kinds of poetry did. That is, until a seminar during a summer internship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. There, she was introduced to Milton Van Dyke’s An Album of Fluid Motion, a book of photographs illustrating fluid dynamics, such as water tank simulations or smoke moving through a wind tunnel. Lundquist says she was “blown away” by how beautiful it was and pivoted her career to become an atmospheric scientist.

Lundquist studies atmospheric dynamics—the ways in which air flows. Her research uses observational and computational approaches to understand the atmospheric boundary layer, with an emphasis on atmosphere-wind energy interactions. The atmospheric boundary layer is the lowest part of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface, where communication between the air and the ground occurs, and temperature changes on the ground can affect air movement in the atmosphere. The turbulent atmospheric boundary layer usually traps pollution so that upper layers of the atmosphere are effectively insulated from the ground. Lundquist is interested in both the atmospheric consequences of wind energy deployment as well as atmospheric impacts on wind energy production.

“I want to solve these big picture problems, and knowing the work that we’re doing can make an impact in the world inspires my research,” Lundquist says. “Our civilization is moving so fast, and the disparities are so dramatic. If I can do something that helps make electricity more accessible to more people, in a way that doesn’t cause harm, that’s one step toward addressing energy challenges and global climate change while reducing pollution. And I get to solve some really fun puzzles along the way.”

Lundquist, a national leader in research in sustainable energy generation from wind, will join Johns Hopkins University as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and Wind Energy on July 1. She will hold primary appointments in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering and in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Lundquist will also be part of the Sustainable Transformations and Energy Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships (BDP) cluster.

“Julie Lundquist is a pioneering leader in the field of sustainable wind energy generation,” says Ray Jayawardhana, Johns Hopkins provost. “Her interdisciplinary approach, combining expertise in atmospheric science and engineering with innovative computational work in modeling atmosphere-wind energy interactions, will add terrific strengths to the Sustainable Transformations and Energy BDP cluster. We are excited to welcome this accomplished scholar to Johns Hopkins University and look forward to the impactful work she will accomplish here.”

The BDP clusters are faculty-developed interdisciplinary groups that are recruiting new BDPs and junior faculty members to Johns Hopkins to conduct transformational research in 10 crucial fields. The Sustainable Transformations and Energy cluster unites scientists, engineers, and market and policy experts with interests aligned toward solving critical technological and societal problems arising from the use of unsustainable chemicals and materials, fossil fuels, and other anthropogenic, environmentally harmful substances. The BDPs in this cluster will hold lead roles as part of the Ralph O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute (ROSEI), a nexus for sustainable energy-related research and educational programs at Johns Hopkins University.

“Hopkins is a place where big things and big dreams can happen,” Lundquist says. “There are so many people with excellent and deep expertise that are all really motivated and driven. The ideas just keep blossoming, and I’m so excited about all of the potential for collaborating with amazing colleagues. A lot of the important challenges in society right now are very interdisciplinary, and I’m looking forward to working with a diverse group of collaborators to get critical work done and make an impact with our work. And becoming a part of the very first research university in the country is awe inspiring as well.”

Because air flow can’t be seen, it is measured with instruments such as drones, meteorological towers, and lidars, which use beams of light to sense where air is flowing and how it is flowing, important steps to figuring out why it flows the way that it does. Lundquist also uses mathematical models to simulate and predict atmosphere-wind energy interactions.

“The minute details of how wind is flowing make a big difference for wind energy generation,” Lundquist explains. “There are differences, for example, between daytime and nighttime wind, between wind moving over land compared to over water, and of course, the weather is highly variable from day to day. But there are reasons for all of this, and we can write equations to then simulate what is happening with airflow.”

During the day, and over land, solar radiation heats the ground, and as the ground warms, it causes bubbles that organize into convective plumes to rise up—much like boiling water on a hot stove—making the atmosphere much more turbulent. This turbulence caused by convection is what can make airplane takeoffs very bumpy. At night, the ground cools down and the turbulence dies off, leading to very stable stratified layers in the atmosphere that can lead to fast winds, called low-level jets, which provide much of the wind energy resource.

Much of Lundquist’s work has focused on turbulence dissipation rate and its impact on wind energy generation. Convection cells in the atmosphere are circular patterns of rising and falling air driven by density differences in air of different temperatures: denser, colder air sinks while warmer, less dense air rises. Turbulence caused by this convection has big whirls that break down into smaller and smaller whirls, as expressed in a poem by famed scientist L. F. Richardson in 1922: “Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on to viscosity.” The dissipation of turbulence is the process of converting turbulent energy into heat at the smallest scales. The turbulence dissipation rate gives an indication of how quickly turbulence will erode, as well as how far away from the source turbulence will persist. This information is crucial for optimizing wind farms with multiple wind turbines as well as for predicting pollution dispersion and flow in urban areas.

“In clusters of wind turbines, the wake—the very turbulent zone downwind from a turbine—can affect downwind turbines. With strong wakes, the downwind turbines will experience slower and more turbulent flow,” Lundquist explains. “This impacts the efficiency in generating electricity and leads to more technical problems and blades that need to be replaced. On the other hand, when the wake turbulence dissipates quickly, a downwind turbine won’t feel the impact of its upwind neighbor.

“I’m committed to applied research—I like to address real-world problems and develop solutions that are going to be useful and help people,” Lundquist adds. “What I want to understand is how can we design and operate wind farms to more effectively use the energy available to us in the atmosphere in order to provide people with affordable and clean electricity. The goal is to be more intelligent and strategic in how we deploy the resources available so that we can make maximal use of renewably generated electricity. I want to do that in a way that saves money, and without adverse environmental consequences.”

Adverse consequences of large-scale deployment of wind energy, Lundquist, her students, and her collaborators have found, are minimal. Simulation studies and field experiments investigating wind turbines built in cropland in the Midwestern U.S. showed that, despite mixing a part of the atmosphere that might not usually be mixed, the atmospheric impact of wind turbines was too small to cause any adverse impacts on the surrounding crops. Temperature changes on the ground occurred only in the immediate vicinity of the wind farms, lasted for just a few hours at night, and were limited to around half of a degree Celsius.

Lundquist says because of the necessary interdisciplinary collaborations required for wind energy generation, one of her favorite parts of her job is her role in bridging the gap between different disciplines.

“I frequently need to translate between different disciplines, like between atmospheric science and engineering,” Lundquist says. “For instance, there are differences in how turbulence is studied and represented in the two fields, and it’s important that we’re communicating clearly. There are a lot of critical issues that we can solve at the interface between atmospheric sciences and engineering. Another important type of interdisciplinarity is to go from science and engineering to the social sciences, to work with law professors to investigate if the law accurately reflects the physics of what happens in the atmosphere, or with economists to document the economic benefits of various choices when constructing wind farms. I enjoy working with colleagues whose areas of expertise are different from mine, because you learn a lot when you talk to people who aren’t like you.”

Moving forward, Lundquist is excited to explore the potential of offshore wind energy. As there are higher wind speeds offshore than on land, wind farms in large bodies of water have a high capacity for generating electricity. Existing research on offshore wind energy already being done at Johns Hopkins, Lundquist says, coupled with Maryland’s investments in offshore wind energy, make Hopkins a very appealing place for her work in this area.

“I’m really excited about offshore wind energy, and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come to JHU,” Lundquist says. “I’ve noticed my doodles have started having more waves in them recently, thinking about different offshore problems. Offshore wind in the U.S. will be important for our energy transition but has many challenges that I want to help tackle. The interaction between atmosphere and ocean is complex here, with extreme weather, ocean waves, and circulations, and these challenges must be addressed now, as the offshore wind industry is taking off. This is the right time to be working on offshore wind if you, like me, are fascinated by geophysical fluid dynamics problems and want to do work that is going to make an important difference, because we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Lundquist comes to Johns Hopkins from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she is a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and affiliate faculty in the Department of Applied Mathematics. She also holds a joint appointment at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which will continue at Hopkins.

Lundquist earned her Bachelor of Arts with a double major in English and physics at Trinity University, and her Master of Science as well as her PhD in astrophysical, planetary, and atmospheric science from the University of Colorado Boulder, along with an Environmental Policy Certificate, having completed graduate courses in environmental law, political science, journalism, and environmental science. She completed postdoctoral research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before joining the staff there as a physicist.

“Julie Lundquist is tackling some of renewable energy’s most complex challenges with vision, originality, and a talent for building productive partnerships and collaborations that draw upon an incredibly wide range of expertise. Her eagerness to pursue bold ideas and her ability to create wholly novel solutions that work at a human level—with a focus on accessibility and improving people’s lives—make her a great addition to the Whiting School and the university.”—Ed Schlesinger, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering.

Adds Christopher Celenza, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences: “Julie Lundquist brings a unique set of skills to our esteemed Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Her interdisciplinary experience shows that she is eager to take on big challenges in the field of sustainable energy. I am confident that she will be an asset to her colleagues in the Sustainable Transformations and Energy research cluster and an inspiration to our students.”

In addition to her research, Lundquist looks forward to continuing to work with students—mentorship she enjoys and considers her greatest professional accomplishment.

“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was to always hire people who are smarter than I am—and every time I’ve had the opportunity to do that, I have,” Lundquist says. “My students continually surprise and impress me with their creativity, their approaches, and their determination. In our research, you not only have to spark new ideas, but you have to persist to implement them, pushing through the inevitable disappointments. Working on projects with students, and continuing to collaborate with former students, allows me to enjoy and appreciate their great achievements. That is incredibly rewarding.”

As a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Lundquist joins an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars working to address major world problems and teach the next generation. The program is backed by support from Bloomberg Philanthropies.