Power Electronics and Electrical Engineering

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Electrical energy is a valuable resource that impacts most every area of daily life. From powering handheld devices to lighting streets and buildings to increasing the efficiency of industry, it is a component of modern living that millions depend on without fully appreciating. After all, for the vast majority of Americans, electricity is just… there. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the total per capita consumption of electricity in the U.S. was about 313 British thermal units in 2011. The global per capita consumption in the same year was 75 million Btu. As such a valuable resource that is used in incredibly large quantities, the storage, use and transportation of electricity is critical.

As an engineer, you can play an important role in managing not just the electricity in the U.S. and abroad, but the devices that use this resource. If you are looking for an up-and-coming job in this field of study, consider earning a master’s in engineering online through the University of California, Riverside to pursue a career in the growing specialty of power electronics.

What is power electronics?

Power electronics is the area of engineering that focuses on applying solid-state electronics to the transformation and management of electrical power. In basic terms, it is the study of changing electrical power to different forms. This focus of the field typically relates to the conversion and control of electrical power, but can also pertain to research related to the design, computation, management and assimilation of the systems. The goal is to control the energy’s flow from source to load in the most efficient, reliable, cost-effective way possible.

The study of this field has existed for longer than most may expect, though the starting date depends on what you consider to be power electronics. Some say that the field began in its earliest form through the electrical machines of the 19th century, at the advent of what is considered the electrical revolution. Others point to the early 20th century and Peter Cooper Hewitt’s invention of the glass-bulb pool-cathode mercury-arc rectifier in 1902. In his 2000 summary of the history of power electronics published in the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Thomas G. Wilson suggested that the starting point should be seen as the year 1912, when the General Electric Company’s E.F.W. Alexanderson applied for a patent for a process that modulated a high-frequency alternator’s current for the use of radio telephony.

Since its onset more than 100 years ago, power electronics has gone through an incredible number of changes that have made the process more efficient and effective. One significant development was the change from mercury-arc valves to semiconductor switching devices, which were explored and developed by scientist R.D. Middlebrook in the mid-20th century. The development of the first microcomputer by Intel in 1971 led to more rapid advancements.

In recent years, the field has started to look at ways that power electronics can be used in the pursuit of renewable energy. Other important applications that you will likely explore as a modern engineer interested in power electronics include the mass storage of energy and the development and creation of hybrid and electric vehicles. While electric motors and generators have been made for years, it is the breakthroughs in power storage that have made electric cars possible.

Power conversion systems

When studying or working in the field of power electronics, a deep understanding of power conversion systems is a must. There are four types of these systems, which are classified based on the type of output and input power:

  • AC to AC.
  • AC to DC.
  • DC to DC.
  • DC to AC.

In addition to understanding the differences between these classifications and their implications in industry, you will also need to be familiar with single-phase half-bridge inverters, single-phase full-bridge inverters, three-phase voltage source inverters and current source inverters. A relatively new class of inverters that is increasingly gaining attention in the field is the multilevel inverter, which offers higher performance, though it is more expensive and complex.

When you work in power electronics, you will likely be tasked with making decisions in the research, design and implementation of these conversion methods to increase the efficiency of electrical systems, depending on your particular role.

The applications of power electronics

Engineers have a number of industrial applications for the research done in the field of power electronics. They range from small pieces, such as components of battery chargers, to physically larger projects, such as the development of vehicles and transportation systems. What do industrial lasers, refrigerators, trolleys, air conditioning systems and textile mills all have in common? They all benefit from the application of power electronics. The conversion of electrical energy has myriad residential and commercial uses.

And these applications are not limited to our planet. Organizations like NASA have found a number of uses for power electronics in aerospace research and development, including the design and creation of spacecraft power systems.

Whatever job you hold in power electronics, you will likely be charged with finding new, innovative applications for the latest and greatest research being done in the field.

Job prospects in power electronics

Whether you are already enrolled in a master’s of engineering program, or are looking to start a degree en route to a new and exciting career, there are a number of options available to the experienced engineer with an interest in power electronics. Some of these job titles include:

  • Power electronics engineer
  • Power systems engineer
  • Electronic design engineer
  • Electric power systems engineer

A facet of power electronics that is particularly on the rise in the current job market is electric power systems. Demand for qualified candidates to fill positions in this area is increasing as the current workforce simultaneously begins to age out.

“Having been in the industry for 28 years, I’ve seen that the overall workforce responsible for reliability and upkeep of the power grid is aging quickly,” Doble CEO Dave Zabetakis said in an interview with Forbes contributor Peter Kelly-Detwiler. “And although the economic slowdown kept some people in their jobs longer, it’s a big problem. It’s also not just a North American issue. This shortage of skilled electrical labor reverberates throughout entire world, which means this market for talent will be competitive. It’s not just one utility competing against another utility, but industry against industry, and country against country, with [a] smaller size skilled labor pool.”

Whatever area of electrical engineering you choose to enter, salary prospects are promising for most positions in this field. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for an electrical engineer is $93,260.

Excelling in a power electronics career

Whether you are already in a job you love or working toward a new career in power electronics, there are certain traits that will set your apart from the competition when applying for a job or promotion. While your education and work experience are important for gaining the technical skills that you need to succeed on the job, employers are placing increasing emphasis on hiring team members with well-developed soft skills – the interpersonal abilities that allow people to interact effectively with others.

Developing the following soft skills can help make you a desirable candidate while you are job searching, but they will also help you to excel once you are firmly established in a position:

  • Problem-solving abilities: Solving problems is written into the DNA of any engineering position. But that does not mean that it is not an area that you need to push yourself in. Employers want to know that you can not only come up with solutions for challenges in your work itself, but solve problems with clients, coworkers and others as well.
  • Initiative and drive: Depending on your position, you may be working closely under a manager, or you could be in charge of a team yourself. Regardless, any role will benefit from initiative and drive. These are traits that are especially important when a workplace looks to hire or promote an employee to a management position.
  • Communication skills: As an engineer, you clearly can understand complex topics and create innovative solutions. But if you cannot communicate those ideas to others, you will not be as effective as an engineer. Consequently, working on your communication skills will help you to build on your existing skills and grow your career.
  • Flexibility: Even the best laid plans sometimes go awry. An employer will not expect you to only have perfect projects that never encounter unexpected problems. But you will be expected to respond appropriately to any challenges that arise. And that is why flexibility is so important. Learn to roll with the punches and you will quickly see the benefits in the workplace.

Your electrical engineering degree

Ready to take the next step in your engineering career? Consider earning a master’s in electrical engineering through the University of California, Riverside’s online degree program. A higher degree will build on your bachelor’s and any existing workplace experience to give you the specialized knowledge you need to advance in your field.

When you pursue an engineering degree through UCR, you can choose to specifically pursue a degree in electrical engineering. Through taking courses dedicated to power electronics and electric power systems, you will be equipped with the skills and knowledge you need to succeed in the field after graduation. Covered topics include powering semiconductor devices, magnetic circuits and components, power supplies and switch mode converters, resonant pulse inverters, voltage controllers, robotic and industrial systems and more. And by taking your courses online, you won’t have to worry about relocating or quitting your current job. You can complete your degree from any location and arrange your schedule to continue working part- or full-time if you so choose.

Recommended Reading

Electrical and Electronics Engineering: How Engineers Help Design Smartphones

Career Spotlight: Power and Smart Grid Engineer

University of California, Riverside Electrical Engineering Program