As we continue our mission to cover inspiring stories, we are pleased to present our first interview of 2021 covering a career that is very relevant to our society for its impact on the environment and our future generations.
Dr Srinath, our next pathbreaker, Wind Energy Professional, works for LM Wind Power (part of GE Renewables), focusing on blade design, as well as its suitability and integration with other wind turbine components.
Dr Srinath talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about moving to industrial research at GE GRC after his PhD to leverage his expertise in Aerospace to help increase the penetration of renewable wind energy .
For students, aerospace is not just about building aircrafts and space shuttles but also about designing wind turbine blades that can be an efficient source of renewable energy. Be a part of developing our future !
Srinath, tell us about Your background?
I come from a small town named Hosur in Tamilnadu, but just an hour away from Bangalore. My family has been in business for multiple generations. I started my schooling in St. Joseph’s school and later on in Seventh-Day Adventist school in Hosur. Early on I wasn’t particularly good at studies, barely passing in most subjects except Maths and Science, in which I excelled. It was only during the end of high school that I got interested in studies. During school I played a lot of football and cricket, learnt the Carnatic Violin for a few years, tried my hand in Karate, Drums and Dance. Without mastering in any single subject/art/sport/craft, I happily tried everything that was offered to me. Luckily for me, my parents didn’t push me hard in anything, but they ensured that I stayed focused on studies.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I am an aerospace engineer by education. I did my Bachelor’s, Master’s and my PhD all in aerospace engineering, albeit different specializations. During my bachelor’s I specialized in aerospace propulsion focusing on IC engines, Gas Turbines and Rocket engines. My Master’s work was in the domain of aeroacoustics, where I worked on algorithms that can model the propagation of aerodynamic noise. For my doctoral thesis, my work was predominantly mathematical where I came up with new algorithms/ methods to design/optimize using principles from calculus of variations which I applied for low speed aerodynamic design.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I always had a keen interest in science and math. Fixing broken things came naturally to me. My father insisted on fixing simple problems at home by himself and I used to support him. As I learnt new topics in physics, I tried replicating some of the ideas at home. I built a kaleidoscope, a periscope, a film projector, created a model town with electric poles and many more. While my parents were not people with science background, they ensured that I got what I needed to learn. I also used to get lots of comics of different kinds. These books opened up my imagination and exposed me to ideas that I never knew about. Sci-fi still fascinates me. Flying, of course is very fascinating, so picking aerospace engineering came naturally.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I have always focused on doing what I find interesting and interests change over time. During my Bachelor’s at the Aeronautical Society of India, engines were my interest as this period coincided with my first motor bike. I had the urge to not only know everything about what I rode, but also know more about the propulsion systems of airplanes and rockets. After clearing GATE, I wanted to explore beyond southern India, so I chose the aerospace program at IIT Kharagpur. Around the late 90’s and early 2000’s the use of computers to solve difficult aerodynamic problems was in vogue. I already had a solid programming background, so I chose my electives related to computational sciences, with my Master’s thesis focusing on Computational Aeroacoustics. This was my introduction to computational sciences, a subject that I have been involved in for more than 20 years now.
The year 2002, when i graduated from IIT Kharagpur, was one of the worst years in terms of campus placements. Despite being the second topper in my batch with a high CGPA, I failed to land a job through the campus selection process. This necessitated a deep thought process on what I wanted in life. So, instead of jumping towards GRE as most of my friends did, I really wanted to explore all the different options I had. So I requested for a research associate(RA) position from a professor at IIT Bombay. During my RA stint I converted a Computational Electromagnetics(CEM) code which was used in the LCA program for aircraft detection using radars, into a Computational Fluid Mechanics(CFD) code for incompressible flows. I had to relearn electromagnetism and the numerical methods used before I could even start. This exercise turned out to be very intensive, but I totally loved it and decided that I wanted to pursue CFD. This was the era in which there were hardly any commercial CFD solvers and almost all the solvers were still at the university level.
I reached out to multiple professors within India and abroad, but ultimately decided that I wanted to work with Prof. Sanjay Mittal at IIT Kanpur who already was well known for his work on fundamental fluid mechanics. After deliberating on multiple topics for my PhD, both of us converged on shape optimization in fluid flows. An example of what this topic is what would be the best shape of a car that has the least fuel consumption? To solve this is quite challenging as the entire flow field around needs to be computed multiple times with each computation taking multiple days on a super computer. We were able to use concepts from the calculus of variations to reduce the computing requirements. This wasn’t one of Prof. Mittal’s core expertise, so it was joint learning for both us. After some very serious early stumbles, we were able to establish the mathematical basis in the first 2 years. The next 2 years was spent in coding the solvers and applying it to low speed aerodynamic design. Our journal paper’s in this area were the first published literature and still continue to accumulate citations even after 10 years. The reason it does is that our work provided the mathematical basis for multiple domains. When I last checked, applications of our work included topology optimization, non-invasive cancer detection, automotive design optimization and of course aerodynamic design.
In 2009 at a conference in Japan, a chance conversation with a professor led me to a postdoctoral stint in Technical University of Munich, Germany. I spent a couple of months exploring what I wanted to do independently and finally started working on the mathematics of robust design or design under uncertainty. The post-doc stint also gave me an opportunity to guide early doctoral candidates on how to approach a technical problem.
After 2 years in Germany, I returned to India. With teaching offers and positions at companies focusing on simulations, I was clear that I didn’t want to work any further on mathematics and programming. I was more interested in working on products and their design. A position at GE’s Global Research Center(GE GRC) was perfect and I grabbed it eagerly. At GE GRC, I worked on a variety of problems, most of which are unrelated to aerospace engineering, but has the math that connects all real-life problems. Some of the products I have worked on include, wind turbines, blow-out preventers for deep-sea drilling machines and gas bearings for refrigerator compressors. In terms of system expertise, I worked on component design, system design and also system-of-system design. Along the way I also picked up knowledge on machine learning(ML) and artificial intelligence(AI) and have been applying this new skillset on various problems. Currently, at GE Renewable Energy, I lead a small team of wind turbine blade designers where I focus on not just the blade design, but also the suitability and integration with other wind turbine components.
How did you get your first break?
After 2 years in Germany, I returned to India. With teaching offers and positions at companies focusing on simulations, I was clear that I didn’t want to work any further on mathematics and programming. I was more interested in working on products and their design. A position at GE’s Global Research Center(GE GRC) was perfect and I grabbed it eagerly.
Moving to industry after a PhD is tough due to multiple reasons, but the chief amongst them is that the PhD topic is not relevant to the industry. I have had multiple colleagues who failed to land industry positions as their PhD work was very fundamental in nature and industry did not know how to use that knowledge. In my case, moving to industrial research at GE GRC was quite easy as my PhD topic was of high relevance at that period.
I would like to emphasize that a PhD pushes the boundaries of human knowledge while industrial research converts some of that knowledge into monetizable products. As long as the fundamentals are strong, moving from one domain to another will never be a problem. So its critical to choose a topic that is of personal interest.
Any challenges you faced in your career?
I would like to discuss two challenges that I faced, one on the professional front and another on the personal front.
- During my PhD, the emphasis was always on accuracy. To solve stationary Navier-Stoke’s equations, a solution would be considered accurate if the residual levels were at least of the order of 10-8. Anything higher would be a poor solution. We really did not bother on speed. My first few months at GE GRC was quite a shocker because solutions were presented with residuals of only 10-2. Here the emphasis was on speed. It was alright to be less accurate, but solutions were needed in very short times. A PhD gives the opportunity to explore, while industrial research demands speed.
- When I started at GE GRC, I had the arrogance of knowing everything as I came with a PhD and post-doctoral fellowship. I was shocked to learn that in my research group of 80 scientists, more than 75% had PhD’s. This was one of the biggest concentrations of PhD’s across any industrial company. Learning humility became important as some of my colleagues were truly world class and some of the best brains I have ever worked with.
Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your work?
I currently work at LM Wind Power which is part of GE Renewables where I perform the role of senior technical leader in conceptual design. LM Wind is involved in the making of wind turbine blades for multiple OEM’s. I am part of the front end engineering team, where my job involves interacting with turbine manufacturers, understanding their system and the blade requirements and carrying out multiple design iterations along with the customer’s engineering team. Once a design has been found acceptable and a contract is signed, the preliminary design from my team is transferred to the detailed designers who carry out the final design. Members in my team are all-rounders as they need to have expertise in aerodynamics, structural mechanics, aero-elasticity, control theory and have a deep understanding of the working of a wind turbine. Some of us have deep experience in one or two of the above mentioned domains and have working knowledge in the others. Combined, the team is self-sufficient. Since the requirements keep changing from customers, it requires me to keep up-to-date information on the happenings in the industry and academia. For example, the 13MW Halidade-X wind turbine is powered by a 220m rotor, which is the biggest ever produced in the industry. Learnings from our earlier blades of up to 160m-180m were not sufficient and the team had to acquire new knowledge. This continuous learning process and the strive towards improvement and perfection excites me.
How does your work benefit society?
My work benefits the society in multiple ways, but I will give two reasons that are close to my heart:
- Increased penetration of renewable energy will decrease our dependence on fossil based energy, leading to lesser emissions and ultimately clean skies. For example, a single 13MW Haliade-X wind turbine can produce up to 74GWh of energy annually. If the same energy had to be produced with fossil based fuels, it would emit 52,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is also equivalent to taking out 11,000 cars from the roads every year.
- As we move towards bigger and better renewable energy machines, we also push the scientific domain into territories that were uncharted before.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
- Keep an open mind. Journey towards success is often pathless. What works for someone will seldom work for others. Explore and try ideas.
- Failure is part of learning and is often a better teacher. There is no shame in failing, but giving up should never be an option.
- Most importantly, have fun in whatever you are doing.
In 10 years time I would like to get back to academic research. Till then I would like to grow into roles that innovate, develop, manage and deploy technology.