In Perpetual Motion

By Marcia Faye
Alireza Khaligh


rowing up in Tabriz, Azerbaijan, Alireza Khaligh (Ph.D. EE ’06) sometimes accompanied his father to his job at the local electric power plant. The sight of the generators, smokestacks, and spinning turbines along with conversations he had with his father made such a profound impact on Khaligh that he turned to constructing circuits and electronic components as an adolescent hobby. With an aptitude for mathematics and physics, Khaligh had scored an academic trifecta by the time he received his doctorate: He ranked first in both his bachelor’s and master’s power engineering programs at Sharif University of Technology, and first in the Ph.D. qualifying examination in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois Tech.

“As a Ph.D. student, he was able to co-author eight journal papers with six of them as the lead author,” says Ali Emadi, professor and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Hybrid Powertrain at McMaster University, who served as Khaligh’s advisor during his former tenure at Illinois Tech. “Dr. Khaligh is truly innovative, exceptionally hardworking, and a highly productive world-class researcher and educator.”

In a telephone conversation from the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), where he serves as an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Maryland Power Electronics Laboratory, Khaligh says his achievements are the result of a simple formula.

“I work hard and always have faith in God,” he says, adding that a little good luck doesn’t hurt. “Electrical engineering was the perfect subject for me. Some people oscillate around an axis, going back and forth between subjects. I knew what my passion was and wanted to get from this point to that point, so I worked hard.”

Recipient of a 2017 Illinois Tech Outstanding Young Alumnus Award, Khaligh has brought in more than $5 million in research funding for his power electronics converter projects as well as for projects on electric vehicles, energy harvesting, and undergraduate education programs since coming to UMD in 2011.

“The concepts that everybody is trying for in energy conversion are efficiency improvement, smaller size, and greater reliability,” says Khaligh, whose team is preparing to deliver prototypes of an auxiliary power-supply device to The Boeing Company, the culmination of a multiyear project. “In an aircraft there are individual air-conditioning units, as well as TVs and screens used as infotainment that are all powered by auxiliary power supplies that are supplied by generators. We designed the power supply to convert the three-phase voltage from the generator to a low direct-current (DC) voltage to provide power to the auxiliary load on the plane. Traditionally this was done on a much bigger, heavier, and inefficient scale.” The UMD team is also building a prototype of a new converter for electric cars that combines the chargers for the main 400-volt battery and the auxiliary 12-volt battery that powers the headlights, radio, fan, and other components, much like in a plane.

Khaligh is also continuing two projects that he began at Illinois Tech while he was an assistant professor from 2007 to 2011: researching energy-harvesting systems and overseeing the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program that focuses on hybrid-electric vehicle technologies. Khaligh is an expert in the Energy, Power, Control, and Networks Program at the Electrical, Communications, and Cyber Systems (ECCS) Division at NSF, organizing panels and making funding decisions for grant proposals from universities across the country. Khaligh is contemplating his own team’s future projects, thinking back to the power plant that played such a central role during his childhood.

“Transportation electrification is one of the inevitable ways of independence from oil. There are over 250 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States. More than 40 percent of greenhouse gas and 70 percent of emissions come from transportation, and for a long time transportation has been 99 percent dependent on only one source of fuel, which is petroleum,” he says. “Electrification of transportation will create new opportunities from reducing CO2 emissions and reducing greenhouse gases, to new jobs for the next generation of engineers and scientists. We believe that our work will contribute to improving the quality of all human life.”