As we head into a world driven by digital transformation, more and more data centers are being built, and they consume a large amount of energy, typically in the range of tens and hundreds of megawatts.
Girish Kini (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Product Development Engineer at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), develops thermal and mechanical solutions for data center products such as advanced semiconductor chips to keep them cooler and efficient.
Girish talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on development of an air-conditioning system that can run without electricity, powered solely by heat or thermal energy.
For students, we need innovative solutions to address our growing energy needs, solutions that are focused not just on efficiency but on sustainability as well !
Girish, can you take us through your early years?
I grew up in Bangalore and went to Vidyaniketan Public School until class 10. I opted for PCME (E – electronics) in 11th and 12th because I had already decided to pursue engineering
As a kid, I had a strong passion for cars and bikes. I subscribed to many car magazines and read them cover to cover. I frequently wrote letters to the editors describing which sections I loved the most. My passion for cars definitely influenced my decision to pursue mechanical engineering.
A note about my parents. My father is an electrical engineer, and my mother is a teacher. They led by example and inculcated a strong work ethic in me.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I received my Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from NITK Surathkal. In 2021, I received my integrated (MS + PhD) PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech.
What were the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I was pretty certain that I wanted to pursue mechanical engineering to chase my passion for cars. With my JEE rank, I could get Ceramic engineering and other niche branches in IITs. Therefore, I decided to go to NITK for my BTech.
My experiences during the 4 years of undergraduate study exposed me to so many areas of mechanical engineering. I realized that mechanical engineering was much more than building and learning about cars.
Specifically, an internship opportunity that I received at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) introduced me to the exciting world of thermal engineering. I was fascinated to see how textbook concepts were applied to create novel solutions to prevent satellites from heating up. Although I was enrolled in an engineering degree program, this was the first time I saw “engineering” happen before my eyes. The famous physicist-engineer Von Karman said, “Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been”.
At the end of my ISRO internship, I was convinced that I want to be a “good” engineer. One who could solve problems, fix things and come up with novel solutions.
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
My internship at ISRO during the summer of my second year of engineering played a key role in shaping my career. I was fortunate to be mentored by renowned experts in the field of thermal engineering during my time here. This is where I realized that many of the employees at ISRO had advanced degrees (MS, PhD). I discussed with them about their choice to pursue advanced degrees and understood the career prospects.
During the summer of my third year in engineering, my mentor in ISRO connected me with a professor in IISc. I was presented an opportunity as a summer research associate in the heat transfer lab in IISc. I got to work on interesting research problems. Specifically, I worked on making smaller heat pipes. Heat pipe is a device which can transport heat from point A to point B. In this case, the heat pipe was intended to transfer heat from the inside of a satellite to the outside so that all components within the satellite can operate as intended. The need for coming up with smaller and lighter heat pipes arises from the fact that it is very very expensive to put things in orbit, and the cost of lift-off increases exponentially with weight. By designing lighter heat pipes, we could reduce the weight of the satellite and thus, the cost of lift-off. I enjoyed doing research, and this experience further cemented my ambitions to pursue higher education.
In my final year of BTech, I applied to universities abroad for admission to MS and PhD programs. Many universities in the US offer direct PhD admissions wherein you are enrolled in a PhD program right after bachelors without requiring an MS. I received a PhD admit from Georgia Tech with full funding support as a graduate research assistant.
This gave me an opportunity to work alongside some of the brightest minds and also tackle some pressing problems in the building energy sector and specifically, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning of buildings. I contributed to a myriad of projects that focused on developing sustainable energy systems. The main problem statement was to develop an air-conditioning system that can operate with <5% of the electricity that a typical AC unit would need, while not being significantly more expensive or large in terms of footprint. The main source of energy for these systems was waste heat, which could come from exhaust of engines, waste heat from industry or datacenter, etc. For those interested in learning more about these projects, you can visit this link. During my time here, I learnt how to take advances in fundamental science and apply them to create more efficient and sustainable systems that can be useful for society.
I also undertook a 6-month internship at Intel Corp and worked on applying the skills I developed during my PhD to the electronics thermal management area. Specifically, there is a lot of infrastructure developed within datacenters to cool the chips. For high-end chips, it typically involves liquid cooling wherein water is pumped to the top of the chip to pick up the heat. As with any other metal objects, these pipes that bring water can corrode. The main goal of my work was to understand whether corrosion in datacenters can impact thermal performance and ways to mitigate it. I also understood other important aspects that go into making a product successful, other than just the technical piece.
After my PhD, I took up a job with AMD as a senior product development engineer in the thermal-mechanical engineering department. In my role, I am responsible for driving the thermal and mechanical design of AMD’s datacenter products at a module, card, and system-level. I interact with other key engineering teams to enable advanced computing semiconductor products.
How did you get your first break?
I consider getting an admission for a direct PhD from Georgia Tech my first break. I was offered admission after a set of interviews, careful review of my application packet and letters of recommendations from my mentors at ISRO and IISc.
During my PhD, I worked on a variety of projects and learned a wide set of skills. It covered a wide spectrum, from conceptualizing an idea to actually building a device that could work. I was also fortunate to be working with an advisor who was well-known in the scientific community. All these aspects helped in getting my internship and eventually the full-time role at AMD.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1 :Working on problems with no known solutions:
In research, you work on problems for which you do not know the answers. In some cases, no one knows the answer because this question has not been answered before. This uncertainty was very unsettling in the beginning. Over time, you figure out how to break a given problem into smaller problems and come up with strategies to find solutions either by performing experiments or modeling them based on theory.
Challenge 2: Academia vs industry
A dilemma that many PhD students face is what they should do after the PhD. It was no different for me. I was unsure about whether to pursue a career in academia and become a professor doing research and teaching students, or if I should take a career in the industry.
I chose to take up an industry position because I realized that I enjoy seeing my work turn into actual products in a much shorter time frame. In academia, the time from lab to market is typically much longer, if it even happens.
Where do you work now?
I work at Advanced Micro Devices as a thermal-mechanical engineer. Semiconductor chips surround us everywhere, from laptops, phones, cars or just about any other device. As semiconductor chips become smaller and smaller with each generation, they are also consistently becoming hotter. Keeping chips cool is important and my role is to develop thermal and mechanical solutions for advanced semiconductor chips.
The various skills that are necessary for my role include mechanical design (CAD), thermal design and performing experiments to validate the designs. Besides the technical part, a key part of my role is to communicate effectively with other colleagues in the organization and work together to create semiconductor products.
How does your work benefit society?
My work plays an important role in reducing the carbon footprint of data centers. As we head into a world driven by digital transformation, more and more data centers are being built. They consume a large amount of energy, typically in tens and hundreds of megawatts. A significant part of this energy is used for cooling the chips. By developing more efficient thermal solutions, my work is helping in making data centers more sustainable.
The products I work on are also used to build supercomputers. These supercomputers are used by scientists and engineers to try and understand some of the greatest problems facing humanity like climate change, genetic engineering, nuclear fusion etc.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
In my PhD, my team developed an air-conditioning system that could run without electricity. The input to this system was heat or thermal energy. My most memorable moment was when we turned on the system for the first time after three years of hard work and it operated like it was intended to. This was very memorable because this technology can provide air-conditioning and refrigeration for remote communities that do not have access to continuous electricity, with the added benefit that the technology is sustainable and produces no greenhouse gasses.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My advice to students is two-fold – be passionate about whatever you do and secondly, be willing to adapt. We all have goals and we work towards them. But our goals should constantly be evaluated, as they typically evolve with time and circumstances. The tenacity to adapt to changing circumstances will go a long way in making each of us successful.
One other thing that has been very helpful in my career is having mentors. My mentors have provided me with advice, critique, direction, motivation and eventually set me up for success. I highly recommend having mentors/advisors.
I will continue working in the industry for the next few years. I will contribute to the development of advanced chips that will be at the forefront of high performance computing, learning along the way and developing my own skill set.