What do the provincial electricity grid, your computer and your refrigerator have in common? Yes, they use electricity – but, like virtually every other device or appliance that uses electricity, they also use power electronics.
Power electronics is concerned with the processing of electrical energy using solid-state electronics to meet the electrical requirements of an application in the most energy-efficient and cost-effective way. Since approximately two-thirds of all electricity generated is processed through power electronics devices, advances in the field have far-reaching implications for practically every aspect of modern life – from running provincial electrical grids to powering laptops and cell phones.
Praveen Jain, a professor of electrical engineering at Queen’s and the Canada Research Chair in Power Electronics, is one of the country’s most prolific researchers and entrepreneurs in the field. He has more than 40 patents to his credit (with more on the way), and his discoveries and inventions have led to major advances that have revolutionized industries. Last year he received the highest international award in his field – the 2011 William E. Newell Award in Power Electronics – from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest professional association.
"Innovation demands that you invent a new technique, topology or architecture. Once you do that, everything else follows."
Jain got his start 30 years ago, helping to develop more energy-efficient heavy equipment to melt steel through induction heating. Later he assisted Canadian Astronautics with the design of high-frequency power conversion equipment now in orbit on the International Space Station. He has also worked for and advised technology giants such as Nortel and Intel. He helped industry to develop extremely reliable and highly-dense power supplies that have demonstrated a four-fold improvement in power density and reliability exceeding 100 million hours. Jain accomplished this feat not only by taking advantage of new and improved components, but also by devising novel new architectures and mathematics for control algorithms. Jain has made sustained contributions to the theory and practice of power electronics converters through his considerable consulting work with industrial partners including Astec, Ballard, Freescale, General Electric, Intel and Nortel.
After arriving at Queen’s in 2001, Jain conducted groundbreaking research into digital control of power electronics that in 2006 led to the founding of CHiL Semiconductor. The startup designed a new power chip for the computer and telecom industries that allowed computer processors to run faster and more efficiently without overheating and failing. In March 2011, CHiL was sold to a California firm for $75 million.
Today Jain is developing new, more efficient micro-inverters, the devices that allow more raw power to be captured by solar panels and transferred to the electrical grid. This work, under the directorship of Jain, is carried out by some 30 graduate students and researchers at Queen’s Centre for Energy and Power Electronics Research (ePOWER). Their results are being brought to market through a Queen’s spin-off company, SPARQ Systems Inc. Jain is also looking into new areas of power electronics research including applications in more-electric aircraft, electric vehicles, lighting and smart-grid technology.
Although he says it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with things that are fundamentally new, Jain’s willingness to keep pushing the boundaries of power electronics is what makes him as a leader in his field.
“You can solve a problem using known techniques, but if you do this you get a known solution,” explains Jain. “Innovation demands that you invent a new technique, topology or architecture. Once you do that, everything else follows. You have to apply mathematics and perform simulations to analyze your solution, and then build it in the lab to see what happens. Innovation and invention are what you need in this area to succeed.”
Profile by Alec Ross