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Tell us how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

While trying to decide on an area of technical study as an undergraduate, Madhu Chinthavali visited labs at his college in India. One particular lab where an electrical engineer had devised various motor controls caught his eye.

“It wasn’t the motor that drew my attention,” Madhu said. “It was the little box with the controls and knobs that got me tickled. I said, ‘I want to design that thing.’”

Years later and a continent away, Madhu is designing just those kinds of controls as team lead for Power Electronics in the Electrical and Electronics Systems Research (EESR) Division.

What did you study?

After earning his B.E. degree in electrical engineering in 2000 from Bharathidasan University, India, Madhu began his graduate studies abroad, earning both an MS and a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville—while also working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

What do you do?

Madhu continues to expend that kind of energy at ORNL in the Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Group in the EESR division. He describes his work at the lab as reflecting a larger paradigm shift in clean energy. More average Americans are opting in—installing solar panels, buying electric vehicles, using “smart” appliances—driven by a desire for both cost savings and a smaller carbon footprint.

Those new technologies require sophisticated electronics and controls. “There’s a huge shift going forward, with the penetration of power electronics now being closer to the user than ever before,” Madhu said. He and his team perform work on everything from new kinds of power inverters—including a 3D-printed version—to breakthrough technology that can wirelessly transfer large amounts of electricity.

“We’re more focused on applications research, but at the same time we reach deep into the science and materials aspect,” Madhu said. “That’s why it’s easier to work in the lab here. If I were in industry and had a materials question, I might have to hire someone or go after a contractor. But here the fundamental science is very broad, and there are so many experts you can just reach across and network with and then bring that discipline into applications research.”

What do you like about your work?

Madhu says the favorite part of his work is being part of a close and collaborative team that is developing cutting-edge technologies. “We’re blessed with the best infrastructure, with a lab that is among the best of its kind, and with good camaraderie,” he said. “We like to push ourselves to create unique things that can generate their own revenue, essentially. We’ve won awards for our work, but the best part of the story is that we grew as a team.”

What were turning points in your career?

Looking back over his formative years, Madhu recommends heeding the advice of those who say that their first job can be the most important. For Madhu, that job wasn’t at ORNL. It was at a call center in Chennai, where he worked for 6 months as he prepared to enter graduate school overseas. The result was what Madhu calls the most significant transformational event in his career.

The call center trained him in interviewing, marketing, and even vocal skills. The job “changed my confidence level,” Madhu said. “It gave me the self-assurance to meet with people, to get my ideas across more effectively. It was the most stressful job I could ever have in terms of monotony—but I embraced it and learned from it.”

What are your goals for the future?

Going forward, Madhu said his team hopes to scale up the 20 kilowatt wireless power charging system they’ve developed to 100 kW over time, and he sees huge growth in ORNL’s work on modernizing the electrical grid.

Madhu’s team is working on a router that will allow users to manage their own energy—whether in their homes or in a commercial building. “We’re getting into the heart of it,” he said. “We’re designing a box that can have multiple things plugged into it: energy from solar panels, an onsite battery pack storing energy, your electric car. And you’ll be able to automatically manage it all with apps from your phone.

“It can all be scaled up,” he added. “We can go from the 2 to 3 kW in your home, to doing 30–40 kW to even 1 megawatt for industrial applications.”