Assistant Professor Robert Pilawa-Podgurski has received the Richard M. Bass Outstanding Young Power Electronics Engineer Award from the IEEE Power Electronics Society (PELS) for his innovative work on efficient, yet small and inexpensive power converters. The award is given annually to one PELS member, out of 7,000 researchers and practitioners, to recognize early-career developments and innovations in power.

Power converters are essential in almost all electronic applications, including solar, smartphones, and electric vehicles. Although they are highly efficient, power converters can become large and expensive. Pilawa and his students have worked on increasing the speed at which the converter pulses on and off to regulate voltages. At faster speeds, smaller energy storage components — inductors, capacitors, transformers — can be used, but at a cost. Each time a component is switched, it loses a little energy. So many of their techniques try to minimize that switching loss.

Solutions include algorithmic innovations, such as recent developments in his lab for dithering digital ripple correlation control. This leverages existing ripples in solar photovoltaic power converters to achieve inexpensive and efficient energy extraction, about ten times more accurate than the previous state-of-the-art approaches. The algorithmic solutions are demonstrated with physical hardware, which must be built in the lab. His students have to be good circuit designers, understand the material properties, able to build things, code the control algorithms and understand the electromagnetics that govern the inductors, transformers, and capacitors. The work is interdisciplinary.

Pilawa and his students have also been exploring using capacitors rather than inductors in dc-dc converters. Capacitors temporarily store charge before releasing it at a new voltage. Although there is increased power loss, capacitor-based converters can be smaller for the same power rating. Recent work has focused on a hybrid that couples a capacitor-based converter with a small inductor to gain the size and efficiency benefits of both.