Voigt Chair appointed to share insights into thermofluid engineering

Voigt Chair appointed to share insights into thermofluid engineering

Prof Pieter Rousseau, who currently holds the esteemed Voigt Chair position at the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering of Stellenbosch University (SU), brings a wealth of experience in thermofluid engineering coupled with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

This department was awarded the Voigt Chair in Thermofluid Systems Modelling at the end of 2023. This five-year, fully funded research position aims to develop a globally renowned expertise in cutting-edge thermofluid systems modelling. This initiative aligns with ongoing research in the Solar Thermal Energy Research Group, the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, and broader investigations into heating and cooling systems.

Prof Rousseau’s journey into engineering began in his childhood, where he fostered a passion for mechanical engineering while assisting his father in workshops. “As a young boy, I always helped my father repair and build things in the workshop, and I wanted to become a mechanical engineer since I was in high school.”

This early passion inspired him to pursue a BEng degree, with an initial interest in thermofluid systems. “These systems provide the backbone of almost all energy conversion processes for renewable and conventional power generation, as well as heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, heat pumps, and refrigeration cycles – and even biological systems like the human cardiovascular system.”

His fascination with modelling thermofluid systems grew as he delved deeper into the field. “I was especially interested in the modelling of thermofluid systems since it seemed wonderful to me that one can accurately predict the performance of a complex integrated system even before actually building and testing it.” he explains. These systems are fundamental in designing and optimising technologies such as power plants, heat exchangers, pumps, turbines and more.

While completing his master’s degree and PhD part-time, Prof Rousseau lectured undergraduate courses in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and HVAC at the University of Pretoria. “At the same time, I started an engineering firm with a colleague where we developed simulation software for the thermal performance of buildings.”

He continued his academic journey as a professor at Northwest University in Potchefstroom, where he later also held the NRF SARChI Research Chair in Nuclear Engineering and served as Head of Department and Deputy Dean of Research.

Continuing with his entrepreneurial ventures, he and another colleague launched an engineering firm, MTech Industrial, which continues to thrive today. The company spearheaded innovations such as the Flownex SE software suite and water heating heat pumps, widely adopted in South Africa and licensed to many top engineering companies in the USA, Europe and Asia.

“We developed a range of water heating heat pumps, of which several megawatts of capacity are installed in South African residential and commercial buildings, including well-known hotel and hospital groups. We also developed a novel Air-Cooling Unit for underground mine cooling, which is now used extensively in mines operated by South Africa’s major mining houses,” he says.

Before joining SU, Prof Rousseau also served as a professor at the University of Cape Town, extending his academic career to over 35 years while actively engaging in entrepreneurial ventures. “Several engineering innovations that resulted from our research are still widely used in industry today, both locally and internationally,” he adds.

As the Voigt Chair, Prof Rousseau’s research is at the forefront of combining Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), thermofluid networks, and machine learning to model complex systems such as supercritical Carbon Dioxide (sCO2) compressors, solar thermal power cycles, and human cardiovascular dynamics. These efforts aim to enhance efficiency, detect anomalies, and drive innovations in renewable energy and healthcare technologies.

When discussing the future of mechanical and mechatronic engineering, he emphasises the pivotal role of thermofluid system modelling to pioneer breakthroughs in energy efficiency and disease monitoring. “Our research focus is to combine the power of state-of-the-art physics-based models with machine learning techniques, like parameter identification and neural networks, to realise these innovations.”

Prof Rousseau’s journey highlights the collaboration between academic knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit, stressing the transformative potential of engineering expertise in addressing complex societal and technological demands. His vision of continued collaboration, teaching and research will help shape the next generation of engineers and drive impactful solutions for global challenges.