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Undergraduates win international Best Innovation Award


Daniel Dexter, ECE ILLINOIS

A group of ECE ILLINOIS undergrads broke new ground in the energy field with their unique power converter design, which was awarded the Best Innovation Award at this year’s IEEE International Future Energy Challenge (IFEC).

The team, comprised of Intae Moon, Carl Haken, Ethan Bian, Steven Sedig, Won Ho Chung, and Erik Saathoff, came together to participate in the yearlong competition leading up to the 2016 IFEC in Taipei, Taiwan. The event, which took place this July, is considered the top power electronics undergraduate competition in the world.

The ECE ILLINOIS team being presented its Best Innovation Award at the 2016 IFEC in Taiwan.
The ECE ILLINOIS team being presented its Best Innovation Award at the 2016 IFEC in Taiwan.

The team’s goal was to build an AC-DC power converter, which operates at the universal grid AC input voltage and outputs 400 Volts DC, but it must also have over 96% conversion efficiency at 1.3 kW. The most challenging aspect was making a highly compact converter, which functions efficiently at 65 degrees Celsius. This would result in a power converter that can provide more reliable and size-effective solution to a data center power delivery architecture.

Moon, who was a senior at the time and project leader, said what was unique about the team’s design is that they used a novel circuit topology and digital control loop design, which has never been explored before in this type of power converter. This lead to the creation of a much smaller yet more efficient design than a more a conventional method would produce.

“The whole team worked really hard until the deadline, and we were able to successfully come up with the novel prototype meeting competition requirements,” Moon said. “Being able to present our working converter prototype at such a competitive and prestigious competition and winning the Best Innovation Award for our novel and bold approach are really exciting for us.”

Prof. Pilawa (left) discussing the project with Erik Saathoff (top) and Carl Haken (bottom) while Ethan Bian (second from the right) and Intae Moon (right) work on the hardware.
Prof. Pilawa (left) discussing the project with Erik Saathoff (top) and Carl Haken (bottom) while Ethan Bian (second from the right) and Intae Moon (right) work on the hardware.

The team was advised by Assistant Professor Robert Pilawa-Podgurski, who is an expert in the power and energy systems field, and performs research in data center power delivery, among other things. The initial idea for the team’s design came from Pilawa’s research group, and it was applied to the specifications for this project.

“There were some unknowns that we didn’t know if it was going to work,” Pilawa said. “I told the students that this is a high risk endeavor. If it pays off, it will represent a significant research contribution to our field. I also cautioned that it also may not work at all, owing to the difficulty of the work. Regardless, it would represent a fantastic learning experience at the forefront of power electronics.”

The novel design of the power converter also presented challenges along the way, particularly in getting the converter to function at the final competition. Pilawa said that the team had to adapt to the new equipment and testing environment in Taipei, which forced the team to work on a tight timeline in order to present their design.

Saathoff said that it was stressful to get the design working in a foreign environment. But when it finally came together, the power converter operated beyond their expectations.

As a freshman at the time of the competition, Saathoff was grateful that Pilawa asked him to join the team. He didn’t expect to get the opportunity to be a part of such high level power systems design work as a freshman. He contributed to the team by encasing the converter prototype into a compact and thermally reliable package, manufacturing the boards, and mounting the delicate MOSFETs into the power converter.

“There really wasn’t much of an age gapping feeling amongst the team,” Saathoff said. “Everybody viewed each other as equals. It was a comfortable working environment.”

Pilawa is a “big believer” in undergraduate research and said that the team gained wide range of practical skills from the guidance of his graduate students Shibin QinDerek Chou and Yutian Lei who assisted throughout the project.

Moon, who is now a graduate student at MIT, said his undergraduate research experiences at Illinois sparked his interest in power electronics. He is glad to have been a part of the IFEC team because of the opportunity to share a new discovery that could have a large impact on the field.

“I think getting involved in research as an undergraduate student is a very unique experience where you can learn more about how to solve a real world problem in your field of interest and have an exciting chance to make a research impact through painstaking efforts,” Moon said. “Through undergraduate courses, I was usually given a set of problems to solve using certain equations or prescribed methods. However, a research project is very open-ended and often has many possible solutions that requires an initiative and sense of ownership to successfully implement.”