Mark Lauby, alumnus and NAE member, on power systems security and reliability

University of Minnesota Twin Cities alumnus and ECE graduate Mark Lauby was recently elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, class of 2020, “[f]or the development and application of techniques for electric grid reliability analysis.” Currently, Mark is senior vice president and chief engineer of North American Reliability Corporation (NERC). While enhancing and maintaining reliability of the bulk power system has been the focus of his career, he is keenly aware of the need for trained professionals who can continue the work. According to Mark, the challenges of the future are here, and we need the brightest to build the grid of the future.

Recently, we had the opportunity to connect with Mark, and learn about his professional journey, the evolution of NERC and its vision, and the changing power industry landscape in the light of current challenges.

Tell us about the arc of your career path, from graduating with your bachelor’s degree to your work with NERC 

My father worked with IBM and taught me the basics of electricity. Wanting to be an engineer, but without a true idea of what type of engineering beyond electrical, I started my academic career at the University of Wisconsin, Marathon Campus in Wausau, Wisconsin. After 2 ½ years there, I transferred to the University of Minnesota. In my junior year in 1979, I landed a position as a summer student engineer with Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy), and was placed with the Mid-Continent Area Power Pool (MAPP). A summer there, and I was hooked: power systems would be my profession. MAPP continued to employ me part-time as I finished my degree and offered a full time position after graduation. In my senior year in 1980, I met Prof. Ned Mohan who became an important supporter and advisor. In 1982, I applied to the University of Minnesota’s master’s in electrical engineering program and Ned’s advice was crucial as I learned about power systems.   

At MAPP, I was fortunate to be on the cutting edge of power system reliability analysis. It was also where I met Prof. Bruce Wollenberg, who was working with Power Technologies Inc. (PTI). Bruce moved to Minneapolis to join Control Data Corporation, and started teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota. He became my advisor, and I completed my master’s thesis in 1989. I am privileged and fortunate to have had them as my professors. 

While at MAPP, I wrote a number of technical papers on system analysis, power system reliability, and analysis of transmission outage data.  My technical work was noticed by EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute), which offered me a position in their power system planning and operations department in 1987. In 1992, after developing international business in power delivery, I joined the for-profit subsidiary EPRI International. For the next 15 years, I met with electric utilities around the world. Working with research results from all of EPRI’s programs expanded my world view and technical acumen. 

However, I always wanted to return to the world of reliability and security of the bulk power system (BPS). So in 2007, I joined the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which was an organization that MAPP (now Midwest Reliability Organization) supported when I started my career. I began my journey through reliability assessments, performance analysis, reliability standards, compliance, and cyber security. In 2014, I was named senior vice president and chief engineer of NERC.

Could you tell us about NERC: its role and responsibilities, and your charge as chief engineer?

The vision for the Electric Reliability Organization Enterprise, which comprises NERC and six regional entities, is a highly reliable and secure North American bulk power system.

NERC was formed by electric utilities across North America more than 50 years ago. It was a result of lessons learned from the northeast blackout of 1965, and is dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the reliability of the interconnected bulk power system. The vision for the Electric Reliability Organization Enterprise, which comprises NERC and the six regional entities, (MRO, NPCC, RF, SERC, Texas RE, and WECC) is a highly reliable and secure North American bulk power system. Our mission is to assure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the grid. NERC is responsible for developing, adopting, and enforcing reliability standards, and performing reliability assessments of the North American interconnected systems which include the southern portion of Canada and the northern portion of Baja, Mexico.

As senior vice president and chief engineer, I am responsible for providing leadership and strategic vision for NERC’s Engineering Services, Reliability Standard development, Reliability Assessment, Performance Analysis, and Situational Analysis.

How have NERC’s responsibilities and role evolved where power generation has changed (from fossil fuels to renewables)?

The change to renewables introduces key challenges to providing a reliable and secure bulk power system, as some renewables introduce more uncertainty due to fuel, and system design/simulation challenges.

NERC’s responsibilities remain the same: a highly reliable and secure bulk power system. However, the change to renewables introduces key challenges to fulfilling these responsibilities. For example, some renewables introduce more uncertainty due to fuel, and system design/simulation challenges. Working with industry, vendors, and federal and provincial/state regulators and policy makers, these uncertainties are being addressed through improved modeling, industry guidelines, enhanced reliability standards, and, working with IEEE, new equipment standards.

Reliability assessment and performance analysis has been one of your key achievements. Your effort in the area has especially been lauded by the NAE. What is the role of such assessment and analysis in the context of the exigencies of current day power consumption (e.g.: providing good power quality for server farms)?

NERC’s assessments are a high-level assessment of resource adequacy, an overview of projected electricity demand growth, and generation and transmission additions.

NERC’s Reliability Assessment and Performance Analysis group identifies areas of concern and makes recommendations for remedying them.  NERC’s assessments are a high-level assessment of resource adequacy, an overview of projected electricity demand growth, and generation and transmission additions. NERC also identifies long-term emerging issues and trends that do not necessarily pose an immediate threat to reliability and security, but will influence future bulk power system planning, development, and system analysis.  

Each year, NERC is responsible for independently assessing and reporting on the overall reliability, adequacy, and associated risks that could impact the upcoming summer and winter seasons as well as the long-term, 10-year period.  As emerging risks and potential impacts to reliability and security are identified, special assessments are conducted that provide similar technical framework and insights about the range and specific aspects of these to guide steps that may be warranted. 

By identifying and quantifying emerging reliability issues, NERC is able to provide risk-informed recommendations and support a learning environment for industry to pursue improved reliability and security performance. 

Independent, unbiased judgment of industry’s plans for maintaining electric reliability in the future is founded on solid engineering through collaborative and consensus-based assessments. By identifying and quantifying emerging reliability issues, NERC is able to provide risk-informed recommendations and support a learning environment for industry to pursue improved reliability and security performance. These recommendations, along with the associated technical analysis, provide the basis for actionable enhancements to resource and transmission planning methods, planning and operating guidelines, and NERC Reliability Standards.

In addition, NERC publishes reports that analyze the performance of the North American bulk power system. Currently, an annual review is published, the State of Reliability report, which analyzes the historical risks to the bulk power system with a view toward developing a risk-based approach to solving important BPS problems. Prior to the State of Reliability report, NERC published an annual Risk Assessment of Reliability Performance Report.

What are some critical challenges the power industry faces now versus say, 10 years ago?

It’s always a worry to forecast the future.  However, there are some key challenges facing industry:

The transformation of generating resources and fuel sources along with changes in load characteristics is creating new reliability risks, from long and short-term planning to real-time operations.

Grid Transformation: The transformation of generating resources and fuel sources along with changes in load characteristics is creating new reliability risks, from long and short-term planning to real-time operations. Public input along with the influence of regulatory and socioeconomic policies continue to drive a significant evolution in the mix of power resources. The shift away from conventional synchronous central-station generators toward a new mix of resources continues to challenge generation, and grid planners and operators. This new paradigm of the resource mix includes natural-gas-fired generation, unprecedented proportions of non-synchronous resources, including renewables and battery storage, demand response, smart and micro-grids, and other emerging technologies. Collectively, the new resources are more susceptible to energy sufficiency issues because of common mode contingencies in fuel supply whether the fuel is natural gas or inverter-based. Looking forward, consumers’ desire to decarbonize, individual provincial and states’ legislative and regulatory initiatives, expected lower production costs of new resources, and the aging of existing generation infrastructure will all alter the nature and dispatch of generation, leading to further resource and grid transformation.

Extreme natural events cause a significant proportion of major BPS impacts. Each type of event brings unique challenges from supply sufficiency, spare-parts availability, delivery, and restoration perspectives.

Extreme Natural Events: Extreme natural events (e.g., storms, wildfire) cause a significant proportion of major BPS impacts. Extreme natural events tend to be regional in nature. Natural events may affect equipment, resources, or infrastructure required to operate the BPS. Certain events are unique to areas that they impact while others may occur in any area of the BPS. Each type of event brings unique challenges from supply sufficiency, spare-parts availability, delivery, and restoration perspectives. Preparation and proactive planning of procedures and protocols are critical for utilities to assess and determine appropriate steps for both reliability and resilience.

Cyber and physical security are interdependent aspects as exploitation of one could be used to compromise the other. Resulting impacts could cause asset damage or loss of functionality and situational awareness needed to reliably operate or restore the BPS.

Security Risks: Operational security is an essential component of a highly reliable BPS. Cyber and physical security are interdependent aspects as exploitation of one could be used to compromise the other. Resulting impacts could cause asset damage or loss of functionality and situational awareness needed to reliably operate or restore the BPS. Exploitation could occur directly against equipment used to monitor, protect, and control the BPS, or indirectly through supporting systems, such as voice communications or interdependent critical infrastructure sectors and subsectors (e.g., water supply and natural gas used for electrical power generation). A coordinated cyber and physical attack scenario that is potentially targeted to occur simultaneously with an extreme natural event could further impact reliability and/or complicate recovery activities. A man-made electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event targeted at the BPS may impact operations and result in damaged equipment that may require an extended period of time to replace.

Significant and evolving critical infrastructure sector and subsector interdependencies are not fully or accurately characterized.


Critical Infrastructure Interdependencies: Significant and evolving critical infrastructure sector (e.g., communications, water/wastewater) and subsector (e.g., oil, natural gas) interdependencies are not fully or accurately characterized. This results in incomplete information about prospective BPS response to disruptions originating from or impacting other sectors or subsectors, and resultant reliability and security implications.

How prepared are we nationally in terms of resources and security?

The power industry in North America is the only critical infrastructure that adheres to mandatory Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) cyber standards and physical security reliability standards. 

Industry is constantly preparing and evaluating their systems, and remains vigilant. For example, the power industry in North America is the only critical infrastructure that adheres to mandatory Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) cyber standards and physical security reliability standards. That said, cyber vulnerabilities continue to rank among the BPS risks with the highest likelihood and impact. Information technology and operational technology convergences should be recognized, and adequate levels of cyber security should be planned prospectively. 

How does distributed generation impact NERC’s objectives? 

When central generation and bulk power systems fail, distributed generation can carry forward supplying local needs until the central systems are stood up. However, it is critical to develop system designs that support the reliability and security goals of industry. 

Distributed generation, if implemented appropriately, can serve to improve reliability.  Namely, when central generation and bulk power systems fail, distributed generation can carry forward supplying local needs until the central systems are stood up. However, it is critical to develop system designs that support the reliability and security goals of industry. There are technical challenges to designing a system: that provides frequency to inverters when they are disconnected from the bulk power system; that responds faster in the face of reduced inertia; that supports reliability, rather than ceasing to operate or disconnects from the bulk power system when an event occurs; that reduces the attack surface from cyber threats, rather than enlarge it.

Early on, you recognized the impact of a potential workforce shortage on system reliability. Could you share some of the steps you have undertaken and/or supported as chief engineer across the power industry and academia? 

I support several programs initiated by IEEE-PES and a number of universities, such as the University of Minnesota, to bring engineering into K-12, and provide curriculum to smaller universities.

Initially, one needs to understand the scope of the problem, and then recognize who can help. With NERC continuing to put a spotlight on the issue, it has drawn attention from industry and academia. The mission of the electric power industry is both potent and compelling. IEEE-PES and a number of universities, such as the University of Minnesota, have started initiating programs to bring engineering into K-12, and robust ways to provide curriculum to smaller universities. I support a number of these programs, and have visited universities myself, to spark career interest in the electric power industry. 

What would you put down as your most prized professional achievements, thinking across your time with MAPP, EPRI, and NERC?

Being of service to the industry both in North America and the world is both satisfying and exhilarating.

Being of service to the industry both in North America and the world is both satisfying and exhilarating. The impact on people’s lives enabled through clean, affordable, safe, and reliable energy is astounding. I am proud to be a part of this delivery be it through studies, development and implementation of new technologies, transferring technology to industry, leading and influencing application of system performance standards, or identifying risks to reliability and fostering their mitigation.

As a storied alumnus and now NAE member, what advice would you share with our students (current and prospective), especially those who are interested in power systems?

The challenges of the future are big and they are here. We need the brightest to build the grid of the future!

The time is now. This is one industry where you can make a difference.  More than 400 million people in North America are depending on the grid every day. The metamorphosis of the bulk power system towards a decarbonized, distributed, and digitized future requires new ideas, fresh views, and keen insights. Don’t let anyone take your dreams and determination away. The challenges of the future are big and they are here. We need the brightest to build the grid of the future!

Read more about Mark’s election as NAE member and his work and accomplishments in the Recent News section of the home page

Doctoral Candidates Burhaneddin Yaman, Renata Saha, and Anushree Ramanath Receive Travel Grants

Graduate students Burhaneddin Yaman and Renata Saha are recipients of the IEM Walter Lang Barnes fellowship awarded by the Institute for Engineering in Medicine (IEM). The fellowship has been instituted to provide graduate students at the University with financial support for travel to conferences for research presentations. 

Doctoral candidate Burhaneddin (pictured right) will be traveling to a conference hosted by the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, scheduled to be held in April this year in Sydney, Australia. He is scheduled to speak on “Physics-Based Self-Supervised Deep Learning for Accelerated MRI Without Fully Sampled Reference Data.” Burhaneddin is working on his doctoral research under the guidance of Prof. Mehmet Akçakaya.

Doctoral student Renata Saha (pictured left) is scheduled to travel to the 13th International Conference on the Scientific and Clinical Applications of Magnetic Carriers, to be held in London, UK in June. She will be presenting on “Portable Magnetic Particle Spectroscopy (MPS) Testing Kit for Rapid, Wash-Free, Solution-Phase-Based Immunoassays.” Renata is working on her doctoral research under the guidance of Distinguished McKnight University Professor Jian-Ping Wang.

Recipients of IEM travel grants are graduate students at the University of Minnesota engaged in study and research related to engineering in medicine, and are advised by IEM members. Applicants are evaluated on several criteria, including their record of academic achievement, the quality of their research plan, their demonstrated commitment to engineering in medicine, and demonstrated leadership strengths.

Doctoral candidate Anushree Ramanath (pictured right) was the recipient of an NSF travel grant to be applied towards the 2020 IEEE Texas Power and Energy Conference (TPEC) held earlier this month. Anushree received the best poster award for her poster presentation titled “Analysis, Design, Implementation and Control of Ćuk Converter with Implemented Magnetics.” Anushree is also the recipient of an NSF travel grant for the 2020 IEEE PECI scheduled to be held in Champaign, Illinois later this month. She will be presenting a part of her doctoral research in a poster titled, “Implementation and Control of Ćuk Converter with Integrated Magnetics for Residential Solar Applications.” Anushree is working on her research under the guidance of Regents Professor Ned Mohan


Alumnus Mark Lauby Elected Member of National Academy of Engineering

University of Minnesota Twin Cities alumnus and ECE graduate Mark Lauby has been elected member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), class of 2020 “[f]or the development and application of techniques for electric grid reliability analysis.” He will be joining the ranks of over 2500 professionals who have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice, and education. 

Election as member of the NAE is “one of the highest professional honors accorded an engineer. Members have distinguished themselves in business and academic management, in technical positions, as university faculty, and as leaders in government and private engineering organizations.”

Mark earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1980, and went on to earn his master’s degree in 1989. Currently, he is senior vice president and chief engineer of North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC)

MARK’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Mark has several accomplishments to his name, and has made significant contributions to the  power industry in areas of reliability assessment and analysis. He has rejuvenated NERC’s reliability assessment and performance analysis, identifying emerging issues affecting reliability. His efforts have led to collaborative industry initiatives that investigate the integration of new technologies and policies, their benefits, and their effect on reliability factors. 

Mark has actively supported the University of Minnesota in the development of new curriculum that is accessible to academic institutions across the United States so they can prepare to meet the workforce challenge.

On the subject of skilled workforce, Mark early on recognized the adverse impact of workforce shortage on keeping up system reliability. He has consistently encouraged industry groups including IEEE PES to focus on this critical issue, and has actively supported the University of Minnesota in the development of new curriculum that is accessible to academic institutions across the United States so they can prepare to meet the workforce challenge. 

In view of the growth in renewables-based generation, Mark created the Integration of Variable Generation Task Force (IVGTF) to identify technical considerations for integrating variable resources (such as wind and solar) into the bulk power system, and the development of specific actions such as enhancing existing standards, and/or developing new ones. He established the NERC Smart Grid Task Force to evaluate the effect of smart grid device and system integration on system planning, design, and operations, to maintain its reliability. 

Mark has developed a reliability categorization scheme, pioneered the development of transmission outage contingency selection and enumeration algorithms, and the application of advanced probabilistic methods to measure bulk power system reliability.

Mark has also developed a reliability categorization scheme and supported the development of the Demand Response Data System to collect data on demand response, as it increasingly becomes industry standard practice. Additionally, he has pioneered the development of transmission outage contingency selection and enumeration algorithms to support transmission planning. In relation to this, Mark has also led the development of transmission outage data statistics and pioneered the application of advanced probabilistic methods to measure bulk power system reliability. He also chaired the development of IEEE Standard P859, “Terms for Report and Analyzing Outage Occurrences and Outage States of the Electric Transmission Facilities.” 

Mark’s work has had far reaching impact. His work on system reliability assessment has impacted reliability standards, not only because of his support of such standards, but also through his initiation of critical conversations on accommodating unprecedented changes in the system while simultaneously maintaining reliability. Transmission outage data collection and analysis is now an industry-wide tool for the measurement and cause analysis of transmission performance. Mark’s theoretical contributions to contingency selection methods, and fast power flow analysis is used by planners in reviewing reliability studies, and by operators to main reliability.

AWARDS AND HONORS

Mark has been the recipient of several awards and honors including the IEEE-PES Roy Billinton Award (2014), the Utility Wind Integration Group Achievement Award (2010), and IEEE-PES Walter Fee Outstanding Young Engineer Award (1992). He was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 2012

The University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and ECE are proud of Mark’s achievements and we congratulate him on his election as a member of the NAE. Incidentally, Mark earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees under the guidance and support of professors Bruce Wollenberg, and Ned Mohan who are also NAE members.

Members of the class of 2020 will be formally inducted at the NAE’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 4. The Academy has elected 87 new members and 18 international members this year. 

Founded in 1964, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) is a private, independent, nonprofit institution that provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. The mission of the National Academy of Engineering is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology.

We recently had the opportunity to connect with Mark and learn about his professional journey, and the evolution of NERC and its vision. Read the interview here.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic to develop magnetic nanodevice arrays to treat neurological diseases

A project jointly undertaken by scientists from ECE, the departments of Neurosurgery, and Biomedical Engineering, and the Mayo Clinic has received close to $1 million in a grant from the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics. The project is titled, “Magnetic Nanodevice Arrays for the Treatment of Neurological Diseases.” The funding will enable the team to develop an implantable magnetic nanodevice array with the ability to generate highly localized magnetic fields for neuromodulation. 

The project will be led by Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Robert F. Hartmann Chair in Electrical Engineering, Jian-Ping Wang (ECE), and Prof. Kendall H. Lee of the Mayo Clinic. Other investigators on the team are Prof. Tay Netoff (Dept. of Biomedical Engineering), and Prof. Walter C. Low (Dept. of Neurosurgery). The grant is spread over 2 years, effective February 2020.

Prof. Netoff, co-investigator on the project, and Director of the Center for Neuroengineering shares his enthusiasm about the possibilities: “I am excited about the prospects of magnetic stimulation of neural tissue with high resolution. Until now, neural populations could only be stimulated at small scales using electrical stimulation. Different neuronal populations may be excited with magnetic stimulation and this technology may provide the opportunity for new therapies.”

Electrical and magnetic fields are used for therapeutic purposes, such as restoring hearing, treatment of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, stroke, and others. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is an example of the use of magnetic fields, and Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) uses electric fields. Although the two types of stimulation have similar effects on neurons, their differences impact their effectiveness. In DBS, the electrical stimulation depends on electrochemical interaction with the surrounding tissue for the passage of an electric current, which can be adversely affected by factors such as degradation of the electrode or corruption of the electrode by biological debris. Currently, this issue is resolved by increasing the electric field through increased voltage or current pulses. The resulting side effects can be mitigated by re-programming the device, but alleviation is typically only a partial remedy. Other challenges that electric stimulation pose include limitations on current density, so very small electrodes cannot deliver high currents. On the other hand, TMS, although non-invasive,  is limited to stimulation of cortical surfaces and cannot stimulate structures deeply located in the brain which are targets of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor.

Commenting on the groundbreaking nature of the research, Dr. Kai Wu (postdoctoral research associate with ECE and member of the research team) says: “Nanometer-scale devices exploiting spintronics can be a key technology in the fields of neuroscience and neural engineering. Magnetic spintronic nanodevices offer a plethora of novel mechanisms which can be harnessed into new device paradigms with the potential to drive progress in the sensing and modulation of neuron activities.”

To counter these challenges, the award winning team has developed a novel nanodevice technology that can allow localized magnetic stimulation through magnetic nanodevices. These magnetic stimulators can be completely enclosed extending their life expectancy. In the current project, the team will go on to develop an implantable magnetic nanodevice array that can generate a highly localized magnetic field for neuromodulation. 

Organized into 2 stages, stage 1 of the project will involve the development of a prototype of functional magnetic nanodevice arrays, and in vitro testing of the prototype. In stage 2, the magnetic nanodevice arrays will be transferred onto medical grade, implantable, flexible substrates, and then tested in vivo.

The project aligns with, and will contribute to the NIH Brain Initiative that seeks to develop new technologies for the large-scale recording and neuromodulation of brain activities for the treatment of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, Tourette’s syndrome, depression, and others.

Co-principal investigator and Director of Mayo Clinic Neural Engineering Laboratories Dr Kendall H. Lee points to the future of therapeutic options: “This project represents a new trend of future implantable brain stimulation technology using spintronic nanodevice arrays. It could allow large area stimulation of neuronal activities with sub-cellular scale resolution.”

The team expects that the proposed development and rigorous pre-clinical testing of a flexible magnetic nanostimulator platform for brain neuromodulation will provide a substantially novel and more effective therapeutic device to treat neuropsychiatric diseases over present conventional devices.

*The post image is courtesy Tumisu from Pixabay

Prof. Sachin Sapatnekar to lead DARPA funded project to build open-source hardware generators

The University of Minnesota Twin Cities recently received a $2.2 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, to build open-source hardware generators for a range of machine learning algorithms that process data in real time. The project is being funded under the Real Time Machine Learning program.

ECE’s Prof. Sachin Sapatnekar will lead the project, and will collaborate with professors Hadi Esmaeilzadeh and Andrew B. Kahng of University of California San Diego, and Prof. Jie Gu of Northwestern University. The latter is an ECE alumnus, having earned his doctoral degree in 2008.

Critical improvements in computing technology in recent decades have enabled the current generation of machine learning. The graphics processing unit (GPU), for instance, has provided an altogether new level of computing power that has allowed machine learning systems to process large data sets. With artificial intelligence moving towards real time learning, current machine learning capabilities must be further advanced. Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) have the potential to meet the needs of advanced machine learning applications in an energy-efficient manner. Currently, however, the costs associated with developing such integrated circuits are prohibitive. 

The RTML program seeks to develop low-cost Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) for emerging machine learning applications. The goal is to develop a compiler that, based on the objectives of the machine learning algorithm, can automatically generate hardware design configurations and standard Verilog code that can address specific needs. Two vital high-bandwidth application areas that the RTML program is targeting are 5G networks and image processing. 

The RTML undertaking is the second part of DARPA’s Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI), investing more than $1.5 billion in advancing domestic, national, and defense electronic systems. In this phase, the agency is supporting domestic manufacturing options, and the development of circuits capable of meeting diverse and advanced needs. To this end, the RTML program seeks to develop ways in which novel chip designs can be created quickly and at low costs to support emerging machine learning applications.

*Prof. Sachin Sapatnekar was a recipient of the Semiconductor Industry Association University Research Award in 2013

Doctoral student Vidya Chhabria receives Women in Technology scholarship by Cadence

Doctoral student Vidya Chhabria is a recipient of Cadence’s Women in Technology scholarship. The scholarship program seeks to foster inclusion and encourage diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ideas in keeping with the company’s goal to support and expand diversity in technology within academia and in the workplace.

Vidya’s research focuses on electronic design automation (EDA) which helps in the systematic, efficient, and rapid design of complex electronic circuits. These circuits have billions of microscopic components that are tightly packed into small packages. The increased complexity of compact electronic systems such as implantable medical devices and cell phones have led to increased chip power densities. This can affect performance and cause heating issues which impact battery life, and lead to device failure. Vidya’s research primarily addresses this challenge. Her work involves developing novel algorithms that leverage machine learning (ML) techniques to automatically design power delivery networks and analyze temperature, performing both tasks across the entire chip. 

Vidya earned her bachelor’s degree in India. While an undergraduate student, her senior design project in digital logic design proved to be a turning point: the experience cemented her interest in the field. As a graduate student at the University, she has been working under the guidance of Prof. Sachin Sapatnekar, contributing towards research in the field. For her, the field combines her enthusiasm for algorithms and hardware design, which enable the development of complex systems with diverse applications. The interdisciplinary nature of EDA, and its capacity to build advanced systems with extensive applications motivate her interest in the field. 

EDA tools typically design chips using heuristic methods which have been rather effective. With the help of machine learning (ML), chip designers can now leverage decades worth of designs by turning the data into valuable insight. ML-based EDA tools minimize errors in new designs, and reduce costs and turnaround times.

Chip design costs have risen exponentially over the years because of two key reasons: the prohibitive costs of EDA software, and the cost of chip fabrication. Vidya’s research has the potential to make a valuable contribution towards reducing costs. She is working on building open-source software by contributing to the OpenROAD project (Foundations and Realization of Open Accessible Design), an effort that involves over 30 researchers across four universities that aims to create a public-domain EDA toolchain. She is also working towards establishing a new machine learning (ML) paradigm that develops novel software to analyze the impact of the high power densities on power delivery network design, and temperature for advanced chips.

Recognition for ECE Alumni Eric Severson and Tong Zhang

2019 saw ECE alumni receive recognition and support for their research. Alumnus Eric Severson received the NSF CAREER award in the Energy, Power, Control, and Networks sub-division (under the Directorate for Engineering) and alumnus Tong Zhang was recently elevated to IEEE Fellow effective January 2020. 

ERIC SEVERSON’S RESEARCH ON BEARINGLESS MOTOR TECHNOLOGY

Eric’s research will endeavor to develop a new type of motor that does not use bearings; instead it will use electric current to create magnetic forces that will function as bearings, thereby creating a completely bearingless motor that levitates its own shaft. The intention is to usher in efficient and reliable systems targeting a “9 percent reduction in US energy consumption by enabling new concepts in compressor technology, electrified transportation, and energy generation and storage.” Eric and his team will also be developing bearingless motor technology for both high speed motor systems such as industrial compressors and power grid flywheel storage, as well as low speed motor systems such as rim-driven motors for flight electrification. 

The CAREER award is one of the most prestigious awards instituted by the NSF to recognize and support faculty early in their careers who show the potential to “serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

After graduating with his doctoral degree in 2015, under the guidance of Regents Professor Ned Mohan, he worked as a postdoctoral associate for a year at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin – Madison as an Assistant Professor in 2017. He is also the Associate Director of WEMPEC (Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium, the largest research consortium in the field of electric machines and drives with nearly 90 industrial members), and a fellow of the Grainger Institute for Engineering.  In his 2 1/2 years at UW, Eric has established an internationally-funded research program in the area of bearingless motors and electric machine design that is supported by the NSF, the Department of Energy, and industry in the form of contracts and federal Small Business Technology Transfer funding. 

Learn more about Prof. Eric Severson’s research

NSF Career Award Abstract

TONG ZHANG ELEVATED TO IEEE FELLOW

ECE alumnus Tong Zhang was recently elevated to IEEE Fellow effective January 2020, for his “contributions to system design and VLSI implementation for data storage.” Tong’s research focuses on computer system design, emphasizing data-centric heterogeneous computing.

Guided by real life applications, his work has spanned computer architecture, memory and data storage, VLSI signal processing, error correction coding, digital communication, and multimedia processing. His contributions to the field include his service as Associate Editor for the ACM Transactions on Storage, IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems – II, and IEEE Transactions on Signal Processing.

Tong earned his doctoral degree in electrical engineering from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 2002 under the guidance of Prof. Keshab Parhi. He then joined the faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2002, and rose to become full professor in 2013.

The grade of Fellow, the highest membership grade, is conferred by the IEEE Board of Directors on individuals with an outstanding record of accomplishments in an IEEE field of interest. Fewer than one-tenth of one percent of the total number of voting members are elevated as Fellows. The grade is recognized by the technical community as a prestigious honor and an important career achievement.

Crossing Disciplinary Borders with Dr. Kai Wu: Engineering in Medicine

For ECE alumnus and current postdoctoral research associate Kai Wu, moving from one accomplishment to the next has become a matter of habit. In keeping with his name (which means triumphant music in Mandarin), his academic and professional career has been ascending as it explores new frontiers in engineering in healthcare. 

THE STORY BEGINS IN JINHUA, CHINA

Born in Jinhua, China, Kai was an exemplary student all through high school with dual interests: engineering and medicine. Torn between pursuing two disparate fields, after several discussions with his parents, Kai decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He graduated in 2013 from Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xi’an with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and information engineering. 

Keen on taking his academic interests further, he applied to the doctoral program in ECE, but his interest in the medical field had not diminished. But a conversation with Prof. Jian-Ping Wang ( Robert Hartmann Endowed Chair and Distinguished McKnight University), prior to arriving at the University, turned out to be an eye opener for him. Talking to him, Kai realized that it was indeed possible to marry his dual interests, and conduct interdisciplinary research where he could use his engineering expertise for advancements in the field of medicine.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO RESEARCH

For Kai, there were two key factors that brought him to the University: the nanofabrication facilities, and the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary research. (Of course, the campus location on the banks of the Mississippi river was a close runner up!) Arriving at the University in 2013, he joined Prof. Wang’s research team, and has ever since been deeply entrenched in research located at the crossroads of nanotechnology, chemistry, biology, magnetic materials, and circuits.

Commenting on his work, Prof. Andres Perez, one of Kai’s advisors says: “Dr. Wu’s project is interdisciplinary, bridging three grand-challenge initiatives (namely, food system, water resources, and biosensors) with the ultimate objective of developing state-of-the art technology to protect the natural resources and food production in the state.”

Guided by Prof. Wang, as a doctoral student Kai also worked closely with professors Andres Perez and James Collins from the College of Veterinary Medicine, especially during the year of his interdisciplinary doctoral fellowship. The freedom to work across disciplines and engage with experts from different fields has afforded him the opportunity to learn about needs and challenges that exist in disparate fields such as veterinary science, food safety, and neurotherapy, while also developing his skills as an articulate communicator of his electrical engineering-based research to scientists with non-engineering backgrounds. 

Over the course of his graduate and postdoctoral career (Kai earned his doctoral degree in 2017), Kai has pursued multiple lines of research , each with the promise of direct real world applications. His work includes developing flexible spintronic nanodevice arrays for large-scale, high resolution brain stimulation and mapping, developing a portable, handheld GMR (giant magnetoresistive) platform for different bioassay applications, and developing a portable magnetic particle spectroscopy (MPS) device for immunoassay applications.

Praising Kai’s work, Prof. Walter C. Low, says: “ I had the distinct pleasure of serving on Dr. Kai Wu’s thesis committee. His PhD research was focused on fabricating magnetic nano-devices for immunoassay applications and required a solid understanding of areas such as nanotechnology, material science, electrical engineering, molecular biology, and immunology. He developed expertise in biology, biomedical engineering, and different immunoassay technologies through collaborations with researchers across the University. His ability to master all of these disciplines to carry out his doctoral thesis was quite impressive. ”

WHAT DRIVES KAI?

A key motivator for Kai has been knowing that many diseases can be managed and even cured if detected early. And early detection often depends on the wide availability of sensitive biomedical detection technologies. Currently, the most commonly used optical diagnostic technologies such as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) are susceptible to biological noise, bulky in size, and long detection time. Kai is working on developing  point-of-care (POC) devices based on magnetic nanosensors to provide fast, accurate, and user-friendly laboratory molecular diagnostics. The goal is to make them available for in-home testing as well as online specimen monitoring on both mobile and laptop user interfaces.

COLLABORATING ON THE NIH BRAIN INITIATIVE

Currently, Kai is focused on  the development of flexible spintronic nanodevice arrays for large-scale, high resolution brain stimulation and mapping. The effort contributes to the NIH Brain Initiative, where a critical goal is the development of new technologies for large-scale recording and modulation of brain activities with high spatial and temporal resolution. Kai is collaborating with professors Tay Netoff, Walter C. Low and Susan A. Keirstead, and Dr. Kendall H. Lee (an expert in deep brain stimulation at the Mayo Clinic) in this endeavor. They propose a completely new flexible Spintronic NanoDevice Array (SNDA) that could potentially stimulate and record the activity from every neuron within a functional column of cortex. As a first step towards the NIH goal, a project jointly undertaken by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and the Mayo Clinic was funded earlier this month to the tune of $1 million. The funding comes from the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics. The project is titled, “Magnetic Nanodevice Arrays for the Treatment of Neurological Diseases” and will be led by Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Robert F. Hartmann Chair in Electrical Engineering, Jian-Ping Wang, along with His co-investigators are Dr. Kendall H. Lee (Mayo Clinic), and professors Tay Netoff and Walter C. Low from the University. 

Current technology uses electronic devices that are vulnerable to the encapsulation of brain cells, causing increased impedance and thereby affecting the effectiveness of the technique. The constant need to re-program currently available deep brain stimulation devices is a result of such effects. In contrast, stimulation using magnetic field is unaffected by the encapsulation of cells. In addition, the ability to fabricate magnetic spintronic nanodevices as sensors and stimulators allows for superb resolution in the area of brain stimulation,  and recording at the level of single cells, and potentially even at the synapse level. 

The team’s goal is to demonstrate the feasibility of neuron stimulation and recording using magnetic spintronic nanodevices, which no studies yet have demonstrated. While this proof-of-concept design includes a single flexible chip, dozens of chips could be run by the same electronics, and these  chips can be assembled to make 3-D arrays. Spintronic nanodevices offer several novel mechanisms which can be harnessed into new device paradigms that can drive progress in the sensing and modulation of neuron activities. 

GIANT MAGNETORESISTANCE BIOSENSOR ARRAYS

Yet another project Kai is working on involves extending the capacity of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) biosensor arrays  to enable rapid on-site detection of multiple swine respiratory disease pathogens directly from clinical sample matrices using a portable device. A related effort is the development of a cost effective, portable handheld GMR platform for the multiplexed detection of foodborne listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli pathogens. The intent is to transform the current expensive, time consuming, and complicated sensing techniques into a user-friendly and cost-effective detection protocol with superior or at least comparable sensitivity and selectivity, which could contribute to the control and monitoring of foodborne pathogens. 

SCHOLARSHIP, LEADERSHIP AND SERVICE 

Research is often a collaborative endeavor, and the quality and health of academic discourse is determined by the effort invested by the authors, reviewers, and editors involved in the process. Their work is vital to their community, while simultaneously training them to be robust contributors to communication within the discipline or area. 

Since joining Prof. Wang’s research group in 2013, Kai has published over 30 peer-reviewed papers in journals including Small, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, and ACS Sensors. He has also authored a book chapter titled “Magnetic Nanoparticle-based Biosensing” in Clinical Applications of Magnetic Nanoparticles: From Fabrication to Clinical Applications (edited by N.T. Thanh).

Kai has been a steady contributor to the scientific community of his field, and has been a  guest editor for special issues of Magnetochemistry and Journal of Sensors. He has also contributed his time as a conference reviewer, and journal reviewer for several journals. 

Since 2014, Kai has been leading Prof. Wang’s Magnetic Biosensing team, working on the development and optimization of the GMR biosensing platform, and designing new bioassay methods. He is also actively collaborating with researchers from different areas to promote Z-Lab, a portable diagnostic platform for on site testing of biological samples for various ailments, and working on joint grant proposals with faculty from the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Prof. Wang, Kai’s postdoctoral fellowship advisor, is keenly aware of his unique blend of talent and drive: “Kai is a unique PhD student. He is talented and hardworking and one of the most productive students in my group. He is methodical, has a clear objective, and can work on a problem day and night until it is solved. When Kai decides on a task, he aims at getting the best outcome. As a person, Kai is always pleasant and warm, and is a role model to my other team members. I am blessed to have Kai as part of my team.

Starting 2017 fall, he has been leading a group of doctoral students from Prof. Wang’s group, collaborating with professors from the departments of Biomedical Engineering, Neurosurgery, and  Integrative Biology and Physiology. The goal is to develop flexible spintronic nanodevice arrays for large-scale, high resolution brain stimulation and mapping. As a lead, Kai’s coordinates communication within and across the areas, designs nanodevices that meet neurology requirements, provides advice and train doctoral students new to the group, and writes grant proposals.

Extending his leadership and team player skills, Kai has been a mentor and lead to undergraduate students from the departments of ECE, computer science and engineering, and mechanical engineering, training them in the development of a portable magnetic particle spectroscopy (MPS) device for immunoassay applications. MPS is a promising, cheap bioassay platform that has the potential to be applied in both in vivo and in vitro diagnostics. Called MagiCoil v1.0, the device is designed to provide fast, accurate, and user-friendly laboratory molecular diagnostics, in-home testing, as well as online specimen monitoring on both mobile and laptop user interfaces. It is a battery driven, in-vitro, POC device with an e-diagnostic feature that is reusable and accessible for non-technicians. Magnetic nanoparticles (MNPs) with antibodies are preloaded in a small vial, and users can simply drop body fluids (blood, urine, etc.) into the vial when a real-time signal will be collected by the Magicoil system and sent by bluetooth to the user interface. Users can get the diagnosis result within 10 minutes. The portable test kit could be used for on-field bioassays in nanomedicine, food control, agriculture, and veterinary medicine. Kai has provided the students with direction on experiment design, technical expertise in the interpretation and analysis of lab data, and research oversight. 

Doctoral student Renata is a beneficiary of Kai’s mentoring skills: “I joined Prof. Wang’s research group in Fall 2018 but had known Kai and his outstanding work on magnetic bio-sensing since 2017, when I was applying to the graduate program. Working with Dr. Wu for more than a year, I learnt to think around new scientific ideas, and most importantly, how to demonstrate them in scientific writing. The first year of grad school research is undoubtedly challenging, but Kai always had my back. “

WHERE TO NEXT?

For Kai, the path he has taken has brought him the best of both worlds, engaging his interest in engineering and medicine. And he in turn has taken the opportunity to contribute his ideas and innovations towards undertakings that will have far-reaching consequences in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. 

In keeping with his name (which incidentally also sounds like the Greek letter chi χ, which symbolizes magnetic susceptibility), Kai’s professional trajectory has moved from strength to strength. We wait with bated breath on what lies ahead. 

Learn more about Kai’s work

Omer Demirel Awarded American Heart Association’s pre-Doctoral Fellowship

Doctoral student Omer Demirel was recently awarded the American Heart Association’s pre-doctoral fellowship for his research titled “Rapid High Resolution Whole Heart Perfusion MRI for Evaluation of Coronary Artery Disease.” The fellowship starts at the beginning of 2020 for an amount of $31,000. It is a competitive national award, and applicants are required to submit a research proposal in the style of an NIH grant proposal. 

Omer is a third year student with research interests in image processing, new acquisitions, and reconstruction techniques to address accelerated imaging and robust reconstruction in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). He is working under the guidance of Prof. Mehmet Akçakaya.

Currently, most MRI techniques are limited in their ability to show small structures across the whole heart. While faster imaging methods have been proposed for MRI, they do not yet achieve the desired goals. Under the AHA fellowship, Omer’s goal is to develop new strategies to acquire and generate imaging data using advanced image processing techniques. These will substantially improve what can be seen in a cardiac MRI (CMR) exam by providing high resolution images, thereby improving disease detection. The success of this undertaking will directly impact AHA’s mission to improve heart health, develop better treatment, and reduce fatalities from cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

For Omer, pursuing research in medical imaging seems a natural calling. His mother is a physician in an Istanbul cardiovascular surgery and research hospital, and he has seen the importance of imaging devices in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiac disorders, close at hand. With coronary artery disease accounting for one in six deaths in the United States, and current gold-standard techniques being invasive, and carrying risks associated with ionizing radiation, Omer feels driven to pursue innovations in the radiation-free non-invasive approach of MRI. 

His current undertaking focuses on simultaneous multi-slice (SMS) imaging in CMR for better coverage and higher resolution. In the course of his work, Omer has developed two new reconstruction methods to enhance image quality in different imaging in CMR: a regularized reconstruction technique, and a technique that improves image quality in highly accelerated SMS cine and perfusion imaging. Parts of these techniques were presented at the ISMRM 2019 and EUSIPCO 2019.

Acquiring all the data for an MRI image can be a time-consuming process. Accelerated imaging overcomes this drawback through creating a clinically usable image while acquiring fewer data-points. It also offers the advantage of improved spatio-temporal resolution, which can reveal more details about the underlying image. However, accelerated imaging results in images that suffer from aliasing, slice cross-talk, and noise artifacts, all of which affect image quality. With the aid of the AHA Fellowship, Omer will tackle this challenging task by improving both the acquisition and reconstruction of highly accelerated SMS CMR. On the acquisition side, he aims to implement outer volume suppression methods to reduce unwanted signals around the heart, such as chest and back fat, that may lead to artifacts in accelerated imaging. On the reconstruction side, he is addressing the shortcomings of existing methods, which cannot reduce noise and slice cross-talk at the same time, by developing new algorithms that reduce these possible artifacts simultaneously.

Omer Burak Demirel is the recipient of multiple travel awards and fellowships including the Gary H. Glover Fellowship, and the Bruce J. Bergman Graduate Fellowship. His web site offers more information about his research, and publications.

Alumna Mona Ebrish Participates in 2019 NextProf Nexus Workshop

Alumna Mona Ebrish was selected to attend the 2019 NextProf Nexus workshop hosted at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta in early October. The three-day workshop is designed to diversify the next generation of academic leaders in engineering, and give participants the opportunity to explore and prepare for faculty positions in academia. 

Mona earned her doctoral degree in 2015 under the guidance of Prof. Steven Koester. Her graduate research focused on graphene, the two-dimensional form of carbon. Her dissertation titled “Graphene Quantum Capacitance Varactors,” is a study of the fundamental properties of the material and its use for biological sensing applications.

After graduation, Mona joined IBM at their research and development facility in Albany, NY, and worked on projects related to current or near-future technologies for IBM servers. She recently received the prestigious National Research Council fellowship, under the aegis of which she is pursuing a post-doctoral position at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington DC. During the term of her fellowship, Mona will be working on semiconductor materials with larger energy gap as compared to graphene, to be used in high voltage power applications. 

The NextProf Nexus workshop hosts a select cohort of diverse engineering doctoral students, recent doctoral graduates, postdoctoral researchers or early-career scientists and researchers, and top faculty and deans from around the country. The event encourages  traditionally underrepresented U.S. demographic groups to participate in academic careers. 

Read about Mona’s research interests here.