Solid Oxide Fuel Cell technology generates clean electricity from fuels such as biogas, natural gas or hydrogen without combustion !

Swati Savaliya, our next pathbreaker, Principal Electrical Engineer at Bloom Energy (San Francisco), works on the design of electrical and power electronics systems for the Electrolyzer product which generates hydrogen fuel.

Swati talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about tremendous opportunities to solve electrification problems by powering new technologies of this era (EVs, mobiles, internet, AI, IOT, computers, smart cities) through stable and sustainable power.

For students, there are no boundaries to where one can reach or how much one can excel in a career, as long as you see your limitations as unique growth opportunities !

Swati, can you walk us through your background?

I was born in Gujarat, India. My father is a businessman and mother is a homemaker. I grew up with a very strong desire to support people around me and I knew it can only be done with education. Though my parents could not complete their education due to various responsibilities at an early age, they supported me and my brother’s education. They have inculcated in us the mindset that we need to be optimistic and put in consistent efforts to progress. I still remember the day when I got admitted to IIT Bombay for my PhD and I called my mother to share this news. She very happily said that she always wanted me to do a PhD though she had never mentioned it to me before this day. When I asked her if she knows what a PhD means, she replied that she understood that it is the highest level of education. That is the day I realized that I fulfilled the vision and desire of my mother to see us studying to the highest degree.

My other interests are in incubating new ideas and start-ups, volunteering in social activities and elaborate food preparation. I thoroughly enjoy working on multiple things at the same time. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my graduation in Electrical engineering from a private college in Surat, Gujarat. I had scored well in the final year, second topper in VNSGU in Electrical Engineering. This gave me an opportunity to apply for a Masters in NIT Surat. I cleared all the qualified tests and got admission in master’s in Industrial Electronics (Power Electronics) at National Institute of Technology (NIT) Surat. With the guidance of Prof. H K Patel at NIT, I developed a keen interest in power electronics. During the campus placement, I got selected in Larsen & Toubro Ltd which is one of the top engineering companies in India. I joined L&T in 2008 as a post graduate engineer trainee. At L&T, I worked on design of low voltage switchgear products for power system protection applications.  Later in 2013, after clearing all the qualifying tests at Indian Institute of technology Bombay (IIT Bombay), I joined PhD in Power Electronics and Power Systems while I was working at L&T. My PhD research was focused on power electronics applications in power systems. During my PhD, I did an internship at Georgia institute of technology to explore the international research culture.  

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

To be honest, Electrical Engineering was a choice purely based on my 12th result. Since then, several people, and life incidents have helped make this a proud career choice today. One thing that I learnt from my parents is to give my 100% effort in whatever I am are doing, which will surely help us achieve progress in whatever we do. This became the underlying theme during my engineering. From the first year of engineering to the final year, I developed a good interest in engineering and acquired the basic skills needed. To further enhance my technical skills, I decided to pursue a Masters. 

During my Masters at NIT Surat, I met a very passionate professor, Prof H.K Patel. He taught us all the power electronics and drives related subjects. His way of teaching was so intriguing that I started enjoying these subjects and decided to pursue research. I truly admire him for his teachings which developed my curiosity and interests. From then on, my focus was on core technical design and development, towards technical leadership. In my career, I started taking up projects which were technically challenging and had more learning opportunities. I made sure I excelled in my role and responsibilities at L&T by acquiring domain knowledge, technical and execution skills. 

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

After completing my bachelors in electrical engineering, I wanted to pursue master’s to get into research or design jobs. Once I joined L&T, I was working on the design and development of switchgear products like contactors, relays, miniature circuit breakers, residual current devices, permanent magnet relay etc. 

I started my career in L&T with the electromagnetic design of contactors. I introduced a new simulation-based approach and led the implementation across all the products. I approached every given opportunity with my technical skills and tried to do it differently to make product design more efficient. After three years of working at L&T, I expressed an interest to pursue a PhD and the company did their best to support me. This was the first time that L&T worked out its policy for PhD sponsorship. While I was working on core electrical product design for power system applications at L&T, I chose to take power electronics as my research topic during my PhD so that I could combine my domain knowledge in power systems with my interest in power electronics. 

During my PhD research, I worked on solid state circuit breaker topologies for future DC applications. I also wanted to get exposure to international research, and so I started approaching many professors in my field of interest. This was a challenging task as it takes several follow-ups and rounds of discussions to get international collaborations. I got an opportunity to work with Prof. Graber at Georgia Tech institute. I worked on hybrid circuit breaker topologies, by combining my knowledge of electromechanical and solid-state breakers, during my internship at Georgia tech institute. I have filed 7 patents and 6 research papers from my work at L&T and PhD to contribute to this field.

With the depletion in fossil fuels, it has become evident that we need to start integrating more renewable energy into our energy generation systems. DC systems are more efficient due to lower conversion losses, no synchronization and easy to plug in or out, which enables penetration into the grid for generation and distribution of renewable energy. Also, such systems are to be bidirectional due to the requirements of storage (Battery/Fuel cell). Deploying such DC systems or Microgrid requires protection devices which are bidirectional and faster compared to conventional electromechanical devices. One major challenge with DC is the absence of natural current zero. During my PhD research, I have proposed three configurations of solid-state circuit breakers for the DC system protection which can work in both the directions of power flow, can operate within few microseconds and naturally commutates without any fault sensing or detection circuit. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job at L&T through campus during my master’s at NIT Surat. When I relocated to the USA in 2020, I got my first opportunity in the USA through LinkedIn networking. I connected to many people in my field and areas of interest, and approached recruiters and hiring managers from various companies. After several rounds of search, job applications and interviews, I landed in an opportunity at Bloom Energy.    

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1

The main challenge that shaped my attitude towards life was the time when my father’s business went through a huge loss. This happened when I was in 9th standard and worsened during my 12th standard. In those four years, I have learnt major lessons in life. When I got my 12th results, I was not even sure I would be able to continue my studies, but it was my parent’s determination that made it possible. Like I said, I come from a business community where education was not a mainstream focus. Being in such a societal structure, it would have been very easy for my parents to discontinue my studies especially when we could not afford it. But they didn’t choose an easy path, they decided to take their next step differently which established a different foundation for my life. Till date, this is the turning point of my life for which I admire my parents for their determination.  

Challenge 2 

At IIT, after the entrance examinations, PhD admission is still provisional till the course work is completed with required criteria, followed by a qualifier test. I joined PhD while I was working in 2013. I did my course work while I was working as well. I wanted to complete the course work in one semester (4 subjects and 1 seminar). But this was a bit challenging with work, especially to fulfill the CGPA requirement from the course work. I used to commute between two classes to office and work to meet the commitments at office, and sometimes it used to be 2-3 times a day. Both office and PhD course work used to take up around 18-20 hours per day. Once I completed the coursework with good grades, it was a moment of fulfillment, coming out of all those limitations. In the same year, I was an outstanding performer at the workplace too. 

After this, the PhD journey was all about exploring life experiences on many levels. I always liked incubating new ideas and implementing them to make them a reality and IIT Bombay supported these aspirations. When I learned to excel both at work and PhD, I started working on new startup ideas and was able to start a technical consultancy and a restaurant. Also, I along with other two friends developed a prototype by converting a raspberry pi processor into a CPU which could connect to any monitor or old TV to give rural people affordable access to technology.  This was the most fulfilling time in my career where I was using my skills to work on my dreams and was learning new things on the way. I have realized that there is no boundary if put in consistent efforts. 

Challenge 3

During my second year at L&T, I was assigned the responsibility to design an electromagnetic system for three different frames of a contactor. For the first time, we wanted to change the design approach using analytical and simulation tools. Previously we had designed the magnetic systems using conventional trial and error method, which is time exhaustive and involves huge costs in developing a prototype. The major challenge with a new design methodology is that there is no direct guidance. 

I started with exploring various finite element analysis (FEA) tools, as well as learning and developing expertise in FEA simulation for Electromagnetic systems from a IIT Bombay professor. I started fine tuning the simulation results to match the test results and validating the accuracy of the tool and design methodology. With the new simulation-based design approach, we were able to get the design accuracy of 90% and this was a major achievement for the design team. Later, the same design methodology was adopted for all the subsystems and products in my division. This also gave me an opportunity to train 30 team members on FEA analysis based electromagnetic design methodology during my 10 years at L&T.      

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work at Bloom Energy as Principal Electrical Engineer, working on design and development of fuel cell-based energy server and Electrolyzer. Bloom Energy is leading in solid oxide fuel cell technology for the generation and distribution of electricity and hydrogen which is changing the future of energy. The bloom energy servers are distributed power generation systems delivering highly reliable, uninterrupted constant power which is clean and sustainable. These servers can be deployed as independent systems and as microgrids as well. The fuel cells convert fuel into electricity without combustion. It uses natural gas, biogas or hydrogen as fuel which passes over the anode. Air passes over the cathode and oxygen ions react with the fuel in the fuel cell to produce electricity. So, it generates clean electricity. 

My work mainly focuses on the design of electrical and power electronics systems for the Electrolyzer product which generates hydrogen fuel.  This role requires understanding of UL/IEC standards, system integration, sizing and identifying electrical systems and components, product reliability testing, manufacturability and working with cross functional teams. I am so proud of Bloom’s vision “to make clean and reliable energy affordable for everyone”. I work with the most intellectual and passionate people at Bloom, where I get an opportunity to learn, contribute and excel in my role.  

How does your work benefit society? 

The electrical engineering field opens tremendous opportunities to solve electrification problems, come up with more sustainable options for electricity generation like renewable resources, and make power generation and transmission more reliable and safer. The new technologies of this era (EVs, mobiles, internet, AI, IOT, computers, smart cities) need stable and sustainable power to use them. I want to work towards making power accessible to as many people as possible and making the power generation more sustainable. This is the reason I chose to work at Bloom Energy. Bloom Energy is a leader in fuel cell-based power generation technology. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

After completing 2 years in design of electromagnetic systems for contactors, I was given the responsibility of full product design which includes complete development, from the conceptual stage to the final design release for manufacturing. We had a very stringent timeline of 4.5 months for this project. This was my first project as team lead where I learned the bigger picture of product design. I was responsible for planning design activities and resources, testing, working with cross functional teams for design reviews, incorporating their inputs into design, final design verification and approvals. Our entire team really put in their best efforts to meet the timeline and we completed the design phases in record time. I experienced the transition from a motivated team member to a team lead who could own and execute more responsibilities.       

Your advice to students based on your experience?

There are no boundaries to where one can reach or how much one can excel in a career. Always see your limitations or boundaries as a unique growth opportunity. There are no failures, there are just experiences. Learn every day, there is always a scope for doing things better. Do not try to compete with anyone, create your own place with your unique contributions in whatever you are doing.  While you are working hard towards pursuing your dreams, do every bit with utmost involvement. Stay graceful and leave a positive impact behind.   

Future Plans?

As I enjoy research, technology development and multiple projects together, I want to become a consultant in this field and work with various organizations to transform new ideas or research into more sustainable technology and products, and train new engineers to make great resources for the company. Another major part of my future plans is to work on social issues with the government on energy and education.