Doctoral Student's Research Considered the Future by Electrical Engineering Pioneer
What began as an electrical engineering student’s trip to a conference turned into a chance encounter with a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering.
Doctoral student Haider Mhiesan said receiving affirmation on his current research from a pioneer in his field was one of the most amazing moments in his academic career. “I was shocked,” Mhiesan said, when his advisors, Alan Mantooth, distinguished professor of electrical engineering, and Juan Balda, university professor and head of the department of electrical engineering, introduced him to Professor Rainer Marquardt at the 3rd IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics) Workshop on the Electronic Grid 2018 (eGRID 2018) in Charleston, South Carolina. The conference was held from Nov. 12 –14.
Marquardt is a professor at the University of Bundeswehr in Munich, Germany, and is the inventor of the modular multilevel converter (MMC), a milestone in the advancement of power electronics technology extensively used in high-voltage dc transmission lines. The MMC is a device that helps transfer electrical energy between multiple circuits while also helping control the voltage level. Marquardt’s invention expanded the possibilities of how power can be transmitted, making large off-shore wind parks, solar power generators and power supplies for megacities more realistic by increasing the efficiency of power transmission from those sources to the larger power grid. Mhiesan is working on a bidirectional converter that expands on Marquardt’s invention as he explores a silicon carbide-based interface for use on batteries for energy storage.
Mhiesan was at the conference to present his findings and said the chance to meet such an influential inventor was the highlight of his research career. Even better, Mhiesan said, Marquardt approved of his research thus far. The pair spoke for more than an hour. Marquardt emphasized the importance of making the MMC(s) more flexible and reliable, adding that many companies were not satisfied with the current version of the MMC because it was not sufficiently reliable, which could lead to expensive repairs later.
It was that moment when Mhiesan realized his Ph.D. research was focused on Marquardt’s vision for the future of the MMC. During his doctoral research, Mhiesan has been working to help companies better protect its electrical systems in case of a failure. His research proposes to make Marquardt’s converter more reliable and powerful by finding new methods for the existing MMC(s.) The conversation with Marquardt gave him the drive to continue his research; “I felt like I was flying,” Mhiesan said.
Prof. Mantooth, who advises Mhiesan, said the exchange was a special moment for an early-career researcher. “Having a pioneer in the field validate your research is very gratifying,” Prof. Mantooth said. “More importantly, it is good to know your students know this and have this independent validation.”
The project Mhiesan presented at the conference received funding through the GRid-connected Advanced Power Electronics Systems (GRAPES), a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Center. GRAPES exposes students to industry needs and problems relevant in the field. It was founded in 2009 and includes three universities: the University of Arkansas, the University of South Carolina and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
A Decade of Fascination
Mhiesan’s interest in electrical engineering began in 2008 while watching a show on National Geographic about how Spain and other European countries were generating energy using solar power. From there, he fell in love with the concept of power electronics and devoted his time to developing his knowledge on the field.
In 2014, Mhiesan arrived at the University of Arkansas from Iraq in pursuit of a master’s degree in electrical engineering. He worked with Professor Roy A. McCann. During his first semester, Mhiesan concentrated on learning more about power electronics for renewable energy systems. Prof. McCann then introduced him to Professor Marquardt's invention, the MMC. It was the first time Mhiesan had ever heard about the converter and it fascinated him, so he dedicated his research to learning more about it.
Throughout his research, he realized removing the grid-interfacing transformer could save companies money and energy, however, he was also faced with a challenge. He noticed it could also cause serious damage by leaving the electricity unprotected. It was a problem he and Prof. Mantooth, his doctoral advisor, were determined to work on as his Ph.D. research.
Mhiesan finished his master’s in 2016 and is continuing his research on a transformer-less system. He also joined the University of Arkansas’ Mixed-Signal Computer Aided Design Research Lab (MSCAD). MSCAD is a group located at the Cato Springs Research Center and at the Engineering Research Center.
He attributes his success to the opportunities he’s received at the university and to the professors and researchers, he’s been able to work with throughout the years. “I feel like we are in the right place, doing the right research for the future,” Mhiesan said. He doesn't know where life will lead him after he finishes his Ph.D. but hopes to one day teach the next generation about the importance of power electronics.