Ravaioli studies wasted energy, but is too busy to waste any of his own


Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS

Umberto Ravaioli
Umberto Ravaioli

Umberto Ravaioli lives a double life.

No, he’s not a trust fund playboy who sheds the tuxedo and champagne for black tights and a grappling hook when the bat signal appears.

His life is even more complex than that.

He has to be both a professor and an administrator at the same time. Professor Ravaioli, who joined Illinois in 1986 after leaving his native Italy three years earlier, has worked as a successful researcher, teacher, and adviser during his long tenure at Illinois. He now serves as senior assistant dean in the College of Engineering’s Undergraduate Programs Office.

“Sometimes it feels like administrator by day, scientist by night,” said Ravaioli. “As senior assistant dean I run the James Scholar program for the College of Engineering. I do advising, and I am responsible for individual student academic affairs. And, of course, I have my research to top it off.”

As a researcher, Ravaioli has dabbled in several fields. While he originally focused his work on electromagnetics, he eventually moved into semiconductor research. In particular, Ravaioli studies the charge transport in small devices such as the tiny transistors integrated by the billions in the semiconductor chips of everyday devices like laptops.

Currently, Ravaioli is focusing on the study of the thermal effects of devices and how such devices emanate heat wasting power. Anybody who has ever sat with a laptop on their lap for several hours knows just how hot their thighs can get. That heat is the result of transistors, each generating a nearly undetectable amount of thermal power. But, multiply that minute portion of heat by the billions of transistors in an everyday MacBook and you often get an unpleasant amount of heat. In extreme cases, heat generated by laptops placed on certain surfaces has even been known to start fires. Ravaioli is working with computer models to predict and study the thermal performance of consumer electronics and how to improve the heat problem, amongst others.

 “We are always trying to make devices smaller and pack more of them into each chip so that these devices can get far too hot and consume far too much power,” said Ravaioli. “There isn’t enough understanding, currently, about how this heat is generated in small devices and how it could be managed.”

Outside of research, Ravaioli has also been active in education and advising. He has worked with the National Center for Learning and Teaching of Nanoscale Science and Engineering to develop interactive teaching tools and numerical simulators for students at both the high school and collegiate level. More recently, he joined colleagues at the University of Michigan to co-author an updated edition of a popular textbook, Fundamentals of Applied Electromagnetics, for which he has contributed a large number of interactive Java simulation applets, available in the companion CD-ROM. He has been named to the “Lists of Teachers Ranked as Excellent” six times.  He received the Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Advising in 1990 and 1994 and the Accenture Award for Excellence in Advising in 2006 and 2007.

“What I like about academia is that nothing is static. You take what you learn as a researcher in the lab or at a conference and you get to immediately bring that into the classroom as a professor or adviser. It’s very rewarding that way,” said Ravaioli.

But, with so many responsibilities, it can be a bit taxing too.

“A friend of mine once asked me what I liked about being a professor when there are some many responsibilities from writing proposals to teaching to traveling. And I said, ‘It must be the academic freedom. I have the academic freedom to work on Saturday and Sunday.’”

The price one pays for a double life, he supposes.