What is your area of expertise?
My area of expertise is called power electronics, and I specialize more broadly in energy and electric power.
Can you give me a brief synopsis of your education?
I received my undergraduate degrees, a bachelor of science in electrical engineering and a bachelor of arts in economics and business, at Lafayette College. I received my MS in electrical engineering from ECE ILLINOIS in 1980, and my PhD in 1982 at Illinois, as well.
Why did you decide to become an engineer?
Engineering is the profession in which people really change the world. We might talk about that in other fields, but this is where it is really true. Every artifact that we see in the world, all of the things that make life better for people, are the results of engineering.
What interested you about your particular field?
Energy is fundamental. I grew up during the first waves of energy crisis. And although the political pressures faded away at that time, most of us knew it was going to come back. Progress is always about energy. It probably always will be about energy and how you manage it better, use it better, and use it more efficiently. Energy will always be one of the foundations of any society.
What do you enjoy most about working at the University of Illinois?
The University of Illinois, partly by reputation but of course it’s reality, is much more collegial, interactive, and collaborative than any other engineering place I know of. I have worked in a lot of different institutions all around the world. Illinois really is unique in that sense. It is much easier to work in teams of people to get new and interesting things accomplished.
What research accomplishment are you most proud of?
We were able to invent a new kind of device (now we call it an integrated microinverter) that allows people to integrate a solar panel to become a basic solar resource, so that it effectively just plugs into a wall and supplies energy. It takes care of all its own safety issues, and it does all of the processing and everything else needed to connect to the grid. It lasts as long as a solar panel, so you can attach everything as a combined “AC solar panel.” So it’s real plug-and-play solar energy. I think it is going to make a huge difference in the next few years.
How do you see this device being marketed?
Well I use some on my home, and I think that is the question that is being answered by a big company called SunPower. It can be found on the company’s website for personal purchase. Everybody I know who has used it thinks it is the greatest way to do solar. It has also been part of the reason why cost has dropped so much for solar energy. In a lot of places, solar energy is now actually cheaper than the electricity you buy from the utility companies.
What do you enjoy most about the teaching aspect of your job?
The variety. Students are always looking for new things and new ideas. I have had students come into my office talking about design projects and other things that they want to do. The breadth and variety of different things that we want to do, especially in an energy context, is really important for teaching.
What role have students played in your research?
One of the things that our group pushed pretty early is large team design projects. A lot of the students that worked here and from other universities are the industry leaders in making the present generation of hybrid and electric cars happen. We actually have close to 50 undergraduate students working in our research labs right now. We have a really active program. At the grad level, graduate students are the ones who develop the ideas, present them to the professional community, and take them to industry. Our group encourages leadership activities as well.
What honor has meant the most to you?
I think one of the most gratifying things was my opportunity to do a two-year term as the president of the IEEE Power Electronics Society. That was a really a big deal in making a difference in the whole field. We began a lot of new initiatives that are still growing now and this was 15 years ago. One of the initiatives was a new student competition called the International Future Energy Challenge, which is still a biannual competition. Another, which I am involved with this year, is called the IEEE Transportation Electrification Community. It’s not just about cars; it’s also about ships and aircraft and all other forms of transportation. How do we bring those into an electrical energy environment, where energy is much easier to control and deliver and make safe than what we are used to in other fields?
What are you currently working on?
We (meaning my grad students, colleagues, and myself) have done a lot of projects related to hybrid and electric cars: How to best operate them, and how to make them really efficient. Our most active projects right now involve aircraft electrification, with major architectural changes coming in that industry. The other things we work on are advanced power supplies and power conversion. I think that here in the next five years, we will hear about new computer architectures that are built around energy awareness and power management. It will be a lot different than what people are used to, with big reductions in energy requirements. The new ECE Building also provides an amazing test bed for large-scale energy use reduction, and we have active projects on energy-efficient buildings.
What do you see as the state of your field 10 years down the road?
One of my colleagues reminded me that 10 years ago, nobody had heard of power electronics, and today everybody wants to do it. I think 10 years from now, it’s actually going to be much more so. The use of electronics for controlling and processing energy is turning out to be fundamental, and it’s behind just about every new thing that we see now. LED lighting, smart phones, tablet computers, renewable energy, and so forth, you just can’t do these things without power electronics. Even a lot of the new building controls, the heating and ventilation, you can’t do what we do today without power electronics. Electric and hybrid cars would not exist, and so on. And I think 10 years from now, it’s just going to grow. The field will two to three times as big as it is now.