Talk to anyone connected to Stony Brook University’s new power electronics program, and it’s clear, they’re amped.
SUNY Empire Innovation Associate Professor Fang Luo is charged up about launching the new interdisciplinary program and research lab at one of the country’s most collaboration-friendly campuses.
Second-year doctoral student Anusha Gopagani raves about her power electronics classes and how Professor Luo pushes her to think bigger about the impact of her research on electromagnetic interference.
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Chair Petar Djurić lights up about how the program is luring students like Anusha from around the country to get the hands-on experiential training that will give them a competitive edge for internships, graduate school, high-paying jobs and purposeful careers.
And Spellman High Voltage Electronics Corporation CEO Dr. Loren Skeist is eager to help create a locally trained pipeline of power electronics professionals. So eager that his Long-Island-based company has pledged five years of funding for a new high voltage power electronics training and research lab at the University.
While medium voltage to low voltage power conversion is a much larger market – e.g., low voltage power is used by all consumer electronics, computers, cell phones – it is high voltage power (1,000 – 500,000 volts) that is required for the systems manufactured by Spellman’s clients in medical imaging, security screening, industrial quality control, food inspection, semiconductor manufacturing, underwater data transmission, nanotechnology, analytical instrumentation and many other applications.
“High voltage power enables so many advanced technologies,” said Dr. Skeist, “But it’s invisible to most people.”
The increasingly demanding performance requirements, highly customized designs, low volumes, and high mix of products help explain why there are so few high voltage power electronics companies active in diverse markets and even fewer college programs to train the power electronics professionals of tomorrow. That, and the often prohibitively high costs associated with power electronics academic programs.
“In power electronics, students need not only theoretical training but real-world experiences in a lab,” said Professor Luo, who is also the Lab director. “In the new Spellman High Voltage Power Electronics Laboratory, our students will learn how to safely work on controlling electrical power — and not just reducing the 120-480 volt power from the grid down to 3.3 volts to charge or run consumer electronics, but increasing it to hundreds of thousands of volts.”
People Powered Innovation
Given vital hands-on training in Stony Brook’s power electronics curriculum, Stony Brook graduates will attract attention from a broad range of employers, including Spellman. After all, said Dr. Skeist, it’s people who power the innovations his customers need for creative solutions that continually advance technology.
For instance, Spellman’s highly-skilled workers were behind the high voltage converters used to separate DNA segments, which led to the sequencing of the human genome. They’ve been involved in early-stage research in nanotechnology and designing high voltage converters that enable the efficient transmission of data across underwater fiber optic cables that power the Internet.
As big and as broad as its reach across dozens of industries and countries worldwide, Spellman — voted a “Top Long Island Workplace” in 2020 for the third year in a row — continues to be, at its heart, a family business. When Dr. Skeist’s mechanical engineer father neared retirement, he convinced his psychotherapy-trained son to take over.
Turns out, Dr. Skeist’s 20-year experience treating patients and training psychiatry residents has been valuable in his leadership role. As he assumed the helm at Spellman, it became clear that Dr. Skeist’s main task was to sustain the client-centric, team-based environment his father had cultivated and to prize one skill above all else: helping people communicate and work effectively together.
“To partner effectively and build long-term relationships with our customers’ complex organizations, we have to develop a broad and deep understanding of what they value and need today, and what they will need tomorrow, in order to develop products for current systems and be ready with the technology for new markets and applications.”
Stony Brook’s commitment to collaborate with the private sector on new technology helps explain why Stony Brook is an even more attractive partner to Spellman.
Collaborating with Professor Luo and others across Stony Brook’s campus will further energize the company’s own research efforts, help train the power electronics pioneers of tomorrow and provide Spellman’s engineers greater exposure to the latest developments in closely allied electronics fields.
One challenge his company faces, admits Dr. Skeist, is the underrepresentation of women and many minority groups in its technical workforce and leadership staff. “As a global company committed to supporting innovative technology companies around the world, we need to recruit diverse teams of the most talented people and provide career paths in a stimulating and inclusive environment,” he said.
“We believe that by partnering with Stony Brook, we can develop unique opportunities for people with a solid grounding in electronics, related technical and business fields, to learn about and explore a variety of career paths while gaining experience working with international clients.”
Collaborations Fuel Discovery
While the Spellman High Voltage Power Electronics Lab isn’t due to come online until Fall 2021, Professor Luo, his postdocs and student research assistants are still powering through, chipping away at creating real-world applications that will have real-world benefits, such as alternative energy and power conversion systems for wind power generators and aircraft propulsion systems.
One day, Luo says his research could help power the “Tesla of the Skies.”
“The commercial airline of the future will be powered fundamentally just like an electric Tesla car, he said. “Except it will transport over 300 people around the world, with more than 20 percent less carbon dioxide and save airlines up to 20 percent in operating and maintenance costs, with enhanced safety and reliability.”
Luo will be working with scientists at Stony Brook’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center and with Dr. Esther Takeuchi, the William and Jane Knapp Chair in Energy and the Environment, a leading authority on energy storage who has a joint appointment with The College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Brookhaven National Lab.
He’s also connecting with colleagues on the same wavelength in computer science, materials science, civil engineering, and even the social sciences, as progress in the renewable energy field depends largely on social and political policy changes.
“At Stony Brook, we are encouraged to reach out to professors from different specialties to test out ideas or help answer questions,” Luo said. “It’s a very inspirational culture for discovery and innovations.”
The new Spellman High Voltage Power Electronics Laboratory will also accelerate fellow SUNY Empire Innovation Associate Professor Peng Zhang’s work in developing artificially intelligent grids to improve the day-to-day reliability of power grids.
After Storm Isaias slammed into Long Island last August, it took weeks for parts of the Island’s electrical grid to come back online. “A smarter grid with smarter power converters will mitigate outages much faster and restore power in hours or a day instead of weeks,” said Luo.
Stony Brook’s Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Fotis Sotiropoulos says the power electronics program and the Spellman High Voltage Power Electronics Laboratory have the potential to dramatically boost Stony Brook’s bandwidth for cross-disciplinary research in renewable energy, including his own work in offshore wind energy and the public/private national consortium he’s leading.
Already, Dean Sotiropoulos has engaged Professor Luo’s team in new projects seeking to maximize the efficiency of large wind farms and tidal turbine arrays in the ocean.
These advances and industry partnerships with companies like Spellman are grabbing headlines and attracting more public funding. Just recently, Stony Brook was awarded $20 million to partner with Farmingdale State College on a new training institute to prepare New York’s work for the upcoming development of 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035.
“Partnerships like this are critical to the success of our academic programs as they integrate our commitment to experiential learning with real-time industry initiatives, standards and goals,” said Dean Sotiropoulos.
“We are grateful to Spellman for an outstanding new collaboration that will provide valuable insight into current trends and research while offering our students and faculty a state-of-the-art facility.”
Together, we go far beyond. Learn more at stonybrook.edu/giving.