'Cutting-edge' NCSU professor receives 'Medal of Honor' for semiconductor research
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Raleigh, N.C. — He has been honored at the White House, received a medal at a London palace and been named by Forbes India as "one of the 18 great minds who are doing cutting-edge work."
On Saturday, North Carolina State University engineering professor Jayant "Jay" Baliga was in Amsterdam to receive the highest award in his field – the Medal of Honor from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Baliga is most famous for inventing, developing and commercializing the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT), an energy-saving semiconductor switch that controls the flow of power from an electrical energy source to any application that needs energy. The IGBT improves energy efficiency by more than 40 percent in products ranging from cars and refrigerators to light bulbs, according to Baliga, and it is a critical component in compact cardiac defibrillators.
Baliga recently sat down with WRAL.com to talk about his upcoming award, his career and what advice he has for his students and his two sons, who are also electrical engineers.
What does this award mean to you?
I’m very excited and happy, of course, that my community is recognizing me. Also, in some ways, it validates that I’m the one who produced this, created it and was responsible for its success. I came up with it independently. I championed it and brought it into a product and made it successful. It’s not enough to have an idea. You have to pursue it and make it a reality. All good ideas, if they’re not made into something useful, it doesn’t count very much.
How did you get interested in electrical engineering?
My background is that I grew up in India, and my father was one of the early electronics engineers in India. In fact, he set up the radio network after Indian independence. After that, they made him the chairman and managing director of the largest electronics company in India. He brought in the first semiconductors and started building the set up – the factory for making the tubes for televisions.
My house had all the magazines and books and so on on electronics. So, even as a high school student, I was interested. So, I started reading all those things. It’s because of that influence in the home that I was inspired to go into electrical engineering. Most students, at least in India, would not have access to such magazines. In fact, I think my library at home was probably better than most universities in India in that small scope of subject matter. That’s really what got me interested.
And then, because my father was the head of this big electronics firm, during my summer holidays I told him, 'I don’t want to sit and play cricket or whatever. I don’t want to spend my time doing that. I want to go to the factory and join the people doing training there and get some knowledge.' So, I had this really cool experience of going in, running huge milling machines.
When did you come to the U.S.?
I came in 1969 as a graduate student. I had $50 in my pocket and a suitcase.
What did your dad think about all of your accomplishments?
Well, he passed away before I got some of the bigger recognitions. But he was still impressed by all the things I was doing. Being in my field, he could appreciate what I had done. He would understand.
Tell me about some of the fascinating places that you’ve been, like the White House and London.
Let’s start with the White House. (In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Baliga the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which is the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement.) That was an incredibly amazing experience. I still pinch myself when I think about it. First of all, it came as a really big surprise. This kind of award is way beyond any sane person’s expectations.
I got an email, actually, from the White House, saying you’ve been selected to receive this award. I was sitting here, right here (at my desk). My first reaction was, ‘This is a bogus email. I’m going to delete it. Somebody’s pulling my leg.’ But it had a second email and this was from the Secretary of … he’s in charge of the patent and trademark office, and they handle this award. And I said, ‘Oh boy, this is real.’
At that point, I got very emotional, of course. After that, I picked up the phone and said, ‘I have to call my wife.’ So I said, ‘What are we doing on Oct. 21?' She said, ‘Let me check our calendar.’ I said, ‘Whatever it is, just cancel it! I’m taking you to the White House!’ And she said, ‘Are you kidding? What’s going on?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m getting this award.’ They give you, like, two weeks’ notice. They don’t tell you much, because it’s the president’s schedule … (Baliga tears up) I’m sorry. I get very emotional. It’s just amazing.
WRAL TechWire Coverage of Professor Baliga:
It’s an awesome, awesome experience. First, when you go there, they actually ask the recipients to come ahead of the families. The ceremony started at, I think, 2 o’clock. We had to go at, like, 11 o’clock. And then they give you access to all the East Wing rooms, which is fabulous … Of course, there were Marines standing in every room watching what was going on. But it was funny, I told a Marine, ‘Is it OK if I sit on the furniture?’ He said, ‘Sure! You’re our honored guest.’ So I said, ‘Here’s my camera. Take my picture.’
Yeah, that was cool. But then my family came an hour and a half later, and then they took you to the East Room where the ceremony is and they took you through the whole process. It’s all like a fairytale. My two sons and my wife were there. He (Obama) actually mentioned me in his speech. He mentioned three people, which is cool. My son took a whole bunch of pictures. It’s awesome.
After that, they asked us to go to the Blue Room, and then they said we’re going to have a picture taken with the president one-on-one. And that’s when I had a private moment with him, so I said, 'OK, this is my chance to ask him to sign the program.' You can’t do it in front of the ceremony. It’s too awkward. So, I said, ‘OK, Mr. President, would you mind signing my program?’ He said, ‘Sure, just tell one of my aides to get the program and I’ll sign it.'
He was very nice. He was having photographs with each of us, and then he had group photographs taken. At the end, he’s leaving the room and he turns to me and says, ‘I’ll take care of that for you.’ He remembered. I said, ‘Wow! This is cool.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President,’ and I started following him, and they said, ‘No, don’t follow him. We’ll bring it to you. You go to the reception.’ So, sure enough, one of them came later and there it was, and I said, ‘Wow, how nice of him.’ That’s awesome.
What do you think is one of the most important advances in electrical engineering in your lifetime?
In my lifetime? Oh, wow. There’s so many. It’d be hard to pick something. In my lifetime, since I was born, the whole semiconductor revolution, of course, is what I’ve been involved in. That’s up there in my field. Of course, the whole computer revolution starting from (Steve) Jobs creating the Apple computer and making it accessible to people. And then, I would say the whole Internet. That has had such a huge enabling influence on people.
Is there anything that hasn’t been created that you wish would be?
If I did, I would patent it (laughs). No, I can’t predict the future. As people, predicting the future is the hardest thing you can do.
If you weren’t an electrical engineer, what do you think you’d want to do?
When I was at my bachelor’s, I discovered the Feynman lectures in physics. They’re very famous. I found these books, and I started reading them. It just blew me away. It was so fascinating, just the way he explains things and all the insights he provides into everyday things that are happening. It’s just amazing.
So, I said, ‘Hey, I think I want to do physics! Forget about this electrical engineering stuff.’ But in India, once you choose a curriculum, it’s very rigid. You can’t transfer. You can’t move. So, I would have to move out of that school to another school. So, I said, ‘Hey, what’s closest to physics in electrical engineering?’ Semiconductors. They’re full of interesting physics.
What advice do you have for your students?
Well, we all work in a particularly narrow field of interest. And mine happens to be semiconductors for power electronics, which of course, fortunately, has a very big impact on society. It’s just that it’s embedded and people don’t even realize that they’re using it. It’s kind of hidden from the sights of everyone but quietly providing all these benefits. Like, how often do you think of the ignition system of your car when you turn it on? There’s my chip running it, making it happen. So, nobody knows about these, but these are taken all for granted.
What I’m trying to tell my students is, think about the social implications of your work. Don’t just think of the engineering part, which comes naturally to us. We’re trying to attack a problem, to solve a problem, make something that works, and that’s exciting. But think about the implication beyond that. OK, now it works. What’s it going to do for people? Why did you want to build this thing? Where is its end use? So, I’ve always attacked problems that I thought there was a need in the industry.
My department head one day asked me, ‘Why don’t you quantify its impact in terms of energy savings?' I don’t know what he expected, but I sat down and wrote a report, which is 150 pages long with 300 references. And I found that my innovation had saved 50,000 terawatt hours of electricity – 50,000 terawatt hours is not necessarily meaningful to most people, so to understand it better, you can think of it as 600 Hoover Dams not having to be built or 600 coal fire power plants not having to be built. That’s pretty good.
And then if you don’t build these, then you don’t have all the emissions from it. So, you save carbon dioxide emissions. And then in the ignition system of the car, I started looking into it and I found that it improved the fuel efficiency by at least 10 percent. Now, 10 percent doesn’t sound very big, but if you look into how much gasoline we consume, it really, really adds up. And if you add up 20 years of gasoline consumption, it means we have eliminated 1 trillion gallons of gasoline from being used, because of this electronic ignition system.
Each gallon produces about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, so you get huge payback from that as well because of my chip. I don’t want to claim that I do everything because I created this chip, but other people engineered it for the electronic ignition system and started selling it for that.
What do your sons do?
They’re both electrical engineers. The influence is too strong, I guess. The older one is a Carnegie Mellon graduate. He has a master’s degree, more on the computer software side. He works for (a company that makes) the graphics chips in all our computers. He writes some of the software for the next gen chips. He was telling me how people there noticed my getting this award, because this goes to everyone in electrical engineering. 'That’s my dad, yeah!' (laughs).
The younger one has two bachelor’s degrees from N.C. State – one in electrical engineering, the other in computer engineering. And he has a master’s from Cornell and until just a few days ago, he was doing his PhD here in electrical engineering. But he got a great job offer from a start up locally here, so he just joined it this week. And it’s in power electronics, so he’s using the kinds of chips that I find here. It’s really close to what I do.
What is your hope for your sons and their career?
Oh, I tell them the same thing I tell all my students. Think about the grander scheme of things. Think about how is what you do going to impact society in general. It’s not the only thing, but don’t forget about that. The job is where you focus on something and you’re told what you need to build and get out as a product, that’s what your company’s going to succeed on. But ask yourself: What was that product? Where did it go? How did it influence people? Was there an energy savings maybe that made some people’s lives better, hopefully?
All the achievements and all the awards you’ve gotten over the years, is there anything that you have not gotten yet that you want to?
I try to tell myself I will not want anything. I think it’s just the wrong mental state to be in. If they give me an award, I will be thankful and grateful. But it’s not appropriate. My philosophy is not to aspire for an award. I’m aspiring to make something that’s used by people and that will benefit people. That to me is No. 1. All these awards are like icing on the cake. Now, I don’t mind when they give me awards. I’m not saying, 'Don’t give me the awards.' Please do (laughs). But there’s another reason why I like to get these awards. It actually puts a spotlight on this technology. Otherwise, this is all unknown. Because again, how often do people think about what is making their life better? How does the TV work inside?
Is there anything else that you want people to know?
I’ve been one of those few people lucky enough to create an innovation that has a huge impact. That is an amazing thing, that the technology that you have been championing now has reached the attention all the way up at the national level as being critical to the infrastructure and jobs of the future. So, that’s very satisfying.
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