By GREGORY ZELLER //
A regional manufacturer of custom high-voltage power systems and one of Long Island’s top research institutions have teamed up to advance the next generation of power electronics, with benefits surging straight into your pocket.
Spoiler alert: You personally use power-electronics equipment every day. Your cellphone, your laptop, your dishwasher … power electronics are “everywhere,” according to Fang Luo, an Empire Innovation Associate Professor in Stony Brook University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and he would know.
The multi-PhD (from China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) is knee-deep in power electronics – in a nutshell, the application of solid-state electronics to the control and conversion of electricity (from alternating current to direct current, or vice-versa).
His knowledge in this field makes Luo the ideal man to direct SBU’s Spellman High Voltage Power Electronics Laboratory, which opened in April with funding provided by the Hauppauge-based Spellman High-Voltage Electronics Corp. Spellman is famous for its power-conversion and X-ray products, and the laboratory – under Luo’s steady hand – focuses on emerging technologies in electrical conversion and control, key to Spellman’s continued evolution.
“We are basically doing different designs for different circuitry, to improve their performance in different applications,” noted Luo, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a member of both the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. “The power line you use for your washing machine will be different than the power lines used in an aircraft, for instance.”
Aircraft factor heavily into the scientist’s work. Luo counts three “major projects” on his current agenda, including a comprehensive study of the efficiency, reliability and safety of power electronics in future NASA aircraft.
Through NASA’s University Leadership Initiative, led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Luo is helping to design mega-power motor drives for big planes – capable of carrying 300 people or more – powered by fuel cells. The cells run on liquid hydrogen, which requires extremely low temperatures to minimize power loss, which creates difficult logistical puzzles, according to the researcher.
“If your power-conversion unit gets too large, you can’t seat that many people on the aircraft,” Luo noted. “We are trying to realize higher efficiency and high power-density conversion on board the plane.
“We’re targeting 99.95 percent efficiency – extremely high efficiency designs,” he added. “This has never been heard of before, but we’re getting there.”
Another flight-focused project under Luo’s wing involves modern electrical systems for commercial aircraft, with the Federal Aviation Administration funding research centered on reliability and safety concerns.
“We always hear that going ‘all-electric’ is a good thing for the environment, but what about reliability?” Luo said. “What if you’re mid-flight and something fails?”
To address this very real concern, the FAA-funded work focuses on the creation of small platforms that work within modern-electronics architectures. Already one year into a three-year project, Luo and his team – including contributions from Raytheon Technologies, the University of Illinois and the University of Arkansas – are “modeling different failure models and understanding the root cause of these failures in electrical aircraft,” according to Luo.
“The goal is to provide answers to these equations and provide accurate models of new platforms, one by one,” he noted.
A third major project on his busy itinerary has nothing to do with aviation: Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity, Luo is assisting a “green modernization effort” aiming for more reliable and efficient “modular architecture” for next-generation power grids.
Led by researchers at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the project pursues new standards for low-carbon power converters – potentially, “a huge boost to the power-electronics industry,” according to Luo.
The oft-published scientist – who’s authored or co-authored more than 50 peer-reviewed conference papers, 20-plus journal papers and one book on power electronics – credited the facilities and administrative support of SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center with furthering his work on these and other important projects.
“They don’t just open the facility and say, ‘Go use it,’” Luo noted. “They create opportunities to engage with different partners and different collaborators.
“[The AERTC] is a huge, comprehensive platform in terms of environment and industrial connections.”
The Spellman Lab was able to stay its course through the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic largely due to the leadership provided by AERTC Chief Operating Officer David Hamilton and his executive team, which helped Luo and the roughly one dozen graduate students under his command continue their hands-on work even as social distancing and remote work held sway.
“What we are doing is not just simulations,” Luo noted. “We need to have people there making it work.”
Day and night shifts, strict PPE requirements and other protocols kept the electrons flowing – and now, with many of those restrictions loosened or removed altogether, the Spellman Lab is on course “to become another Center of Excellence for New York State, focused on electrification and power conversion,” according to its director.
“Together with my colleagues, we’re creating a big part of a sustainable energy future,” Luo said. “A lot of good things (are) shaping up for Long Island.”