Tech Person of the Week
Can you give us a little background about yourself?
I got a degree from Heriot-Watt in 1991 in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and then a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1995. Following my Ph.D., I worked as a Research Associate for just over a year with Brook Hansen and then moved to the industry where I worked at the PowerGen (now E.On) Power Technology Centre as an Electrical Power Engineer. Following the birth of my children, I had some time away from work and then took on a temporary lectureship at Sheffield University on a part-time basis. During my time at Sheffield University, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Daphne Jackson fellowship with Rolls Royce. A year into my fellowship I was offered a position at Rolls Royce Fuel Cells Systems Ltd as an Engineer. At Rolls Royce Fuel Cell System Ltd I was promoted within a couple of years to team leader of the Electrical Power and Controls team, where I led this team for around 5 years. I moved from Rolls Royce to Aston University 4 years ago where I have remained ever since as a permanent lecturer.
Out of many fields of expertise to choose from, why Engineering?
I always wanted to be a vet until one of my pets got ill and I quickly realized that dealing with animals wasn’t about cute fluffy bunnies, but involved, bad smells, pus, gunk, and goo. At this point, I floundered wondering what to do. I had a natural ability at school towards Maths and Science and my mum was a Computer Science lecturer so I was no stranger to dealing with new technology and systems so thought this could be a future career. I did my school work experience at ICI with a Chemical engineer prior to applying for university and decided that engineering suited me. However, I was more interested in electrical than chemical engineering.
Is there any project or research you are working on right now?
I have several very exciting projects that I’m working on in conjunction with some fantastic engineers from a variety of companies. My main projects include
- A project with Western Power Distribution called FALCON (Flexible Approaches to Low Carbon Networks), looks at new techniques for encouraging more low carbon generation onto the Network. I’m managing the Aston contribution to the project with a small team and we are doing a significant amount of the modeling and testing validation to show Network benefits.
- A project with Western Power Distribution, Sheffield University, Southampton University, ABB, Converter Technology, Energy Cost Advisors, Portastor, G&P Batteries, Toshiba, Sterling Power, and others to put a hybrid new and second life battery energy storage system on the grid to provide grid support. The power electronic topology and control is partially based on work that I have been involved with at Aston in conjunction with a Ph.D. student that has been validated on a small-scale prototype and is currently being developed on a bigger system funded by the EPSRC.
- I’m putting together a new proposal on a new generation of PV panels with partners which promise to be very challenging.
Do you have any noteworthy engineering experiences?
The only noteworthy experiences that I remember tend to be the bad ones – like fixing a bug at Buchanan Street bus station in Glasgow for an early electric bus prototype system on Christmas eve in the pouring rain and finding out that the contract electricians had run 28 twisted pair cables in the same color and hadn’t bothered to identify which cable was which. These went through to a PLC located at least 20m away and it took a couple of hours to ring through.
What is the trickiest bug you have fixed?
The trickiest bug I had to fix was one that I had a Rolls Royce Fuel Cells Systems on our test rigs. The fuel cell system was a number of fuel cell modules and each module could be connected individually or in alternative configurations to either a small ABB motor drive connected to a load bank or to a large bespoke inverter connected to the same set of load banks. The fuel cells produce DC power and the system was designed as an IT system (no earth on the dc side) and was connected to the ac load banks through the power electronic converters. To keep within the wiring regulations (as the dc voltage was around 1000V) it was necessary to have earth leakage monitoring on the system. The problem I had was that the earth leakage monitor would only show a problem when the temperature of the fuel cell was around 900oC, the voltage was around 1000V and there was limited access to the test cell. The other issue was that the problem didn’t occur on every single test run – it was sporadic in nature. The team tried different earth leakage monitoring methods, different measurements, different methods of insulating and isolating the system from the earth, changing the inverter to an isolated dc load bank, correlating with test parameters, and a whole host of other things. The hypothesis that we eventually came up with at the time was that there was only an earth fault at temperature and when there may have been a fuel leak and the electrons were passing from the fuel cell to the fuel to the earthed fuel pipes. The problem wasn’t fully solved by the time I left the company so I can’t claim to have fixed it – but I’d like to think it was proven either way by now.
What books do you like to read aside from Engineering books?
I’m a fantasy, horror, and science fiction lover especially when it comes to popular authors (as I have no time to browse new authors due to work and kids). My particular favorite is the George Martin – Game of Thrones series, but I rate anything by Steven King and Terry Pratchett.
Can you please tell us why you are interested in the role of power electronics?
My Ph.D. was in machines, my work at Power-Gen was largely a combination of the transmission system and electric vehicle work, at Sheffield, I was looking at more electric aircraft distribution systems, Rolls Royce Fuel Cells is all about generation connected through power electronics and therefore at Aston, I have continued with this work to try and expand my knowledge in this area as I feel that power electronics are a key enabling technology for all areas relating to Energy.
You have profusely of publications, which one of these is your favorite?
Actually, in comparison to other academics, I have a very poor publication record because I have spent so much time in the industry. Typically, my experience in the industry is that you should be working towards earning money for the company not wasting time on non-money-making activities like writing papers. I’m also very old school when it comes to publications – I would rather have a couple of good publications than hundreds of publications with small incremental changes in each. In this sense, I’m lucky because compared to other Universities, Aston University openly encourages people from the industry because it perceives the value of industrial experience as opposed to solely academic experience which is what seems to be required nowadays in order to keep the number of publications high enough to meet RAE and HR led targets.
How do you spend your free time?
I love to travel and we travel as much as possible as a family during the holidays.
During normal working weeks – I generally have no free time because work consumes every waking hour I have. Occasionally I manage to practice my guitar or jog.
Do you believe this quote “Engineers like to solve problems? If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems.”
Yes – however I think I would change it slightly to “Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own improvements.”
a few years from now, what direction do you see yourself?
As long as Aston is supportive, I see myself remaining at the University at a more senior level. However, if any interesting projects coming up in the industry without the commute that I currently do and at a good salary then I wouldn’t be averse to swapping. This is because the effort it takes to get and spend any money in academia is unreasonably high compared to what you can do with the money – whereas in the industry on new, research projects, money tends to be less of a problem than time.
As a lecturer, what words of encouragement do you give to your students?
As a lecturer – I would say
You will do absolutely fine in whatever career you choose after university if you
- Challenge everything
- Work hard
- Read all reports loud before you submit them
- Don’t expect to be on the board of an FTSE 100 company as a technical director 5 years out of University
- Make sure that you get practical as well as modeling experience
- Remember that detail matters
- “Aim to be a zero” [ref Chris Hadfield, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” ]
Is there anything you’d like to say to young people to encourage them to pursue Engineering?
Engineering is what you make it. I have a job I love, working part-time hours for a good salary on projects that matter.