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Faculty Spotlight: Minjie Chen

Published on March 15, 2017 by Sharon Adarlo

By Catherine Shen

Faculty Spotlight: Minjie Chen

Minjie Chen is an assistant professor at Princeton University, jointly appointed in electrical engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. His research interests lie in creating electrical circuits for applications – ranging from cell phones to solar farms – to be smaller and more efficient, with higher performance and greater energy efficiency. He is also interested in high performance energy conversion systems, which can convert power from one format to another.

Chen joined the Princeton faculty this February. An expert in the design of high-performance power electronics for emerging- and high-impact applications, Chen was awarded a bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China and a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Both degrees are in electrical engineering. He is the recipient of the Dimitris N. Chorafas Award for outstanding doctoral thesis at MIT, the E.E. Landsman Fellowship, and many awards from the IEEE Power Electronics Society. Siebel Energy Institute also recently awarded him a research grant to develop a smart energy router.

At Princeton, Chen is currently teaching a graduate level course, ELE 581/ENE 581: Principles of Power Electronics, which focuses on fundamental principles and design of power electronics. He will also develop a new undergraduate course, ENE/ELE 273, on renewable energy and “smart” electric grids, which feature digital automation and computerization that make energy delivery more efficient and responsive. He leads the Princeton Power Electronics Research Lab.

In this interview, Chen talks about his research projects and their possible impacts on society.

Describe your research goals.

There are three main goals in my research. The first is to make electricity management more efficient.

My work basically sits in the area between the source, such as solar panels and batteries, and the electrical load, which can be household appliances or devices, like cell phones and electric vehicles. The main idea is to make that “middle” process more energy efficient, have less impact on the environment, and emit less carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

The second is to reduce the size of power-conversion systems at large- and small scales to improve energy efficiency. For example, when you look at transformers or power stations, they occupy a lot of land. We want to see if we can make them smaller and more efficient. This will help reduce material costs and land use, and benefit the environment. For lower power applications – such as cell phones, computers, and televisions –  their power-conversion systems can consist of electronic circuits and adapters, whose size can dominate the appliances themselves. Miniaturized power-conversion systems can make these devices still smaller, thinner, have more functions, and feature greater energy efficiency.

My third goal is to design a smarter energy-delivery system. At the moment, the power delivery of the electric grid is “passive.” You plug your electronic devices into the wall and get a fixed voltage from the system. There is no “intelligence” in the system. Power just passively flows from power generators to the load in a single direction. This is not optimal because we need better control of, and more flexibility in, the system, especially since we are going to have more solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles in the future. The injection of renewables into the grid will make the whole system more complicated since the produced power from some of these technologies will flow back into the grid and is of an intermittent nature. Intelligent, smart, and resilient power-conversion systems are needed. We have to figure out how to design and manage the complicated energy flow in the future world.

Can you tell us why this research is important to conduct at the Andlinger Center?

The Andlinger Center’s many areas of focus include sustainable energy-technology development, energy efficiency, and environmental protection. My research is aligned with the center’s mission and areas of focus. My research will also link many existing strengths at the Andlinger Center, such as advanced energy storage, fuel cells, LEDs, photovoltaics, and smart and resilient cities.

How did you become interested in power electronics and energy management?

When I started college in 2005, people were fascinated with information technology, while power electronics did not receive as much attention. The grid basically has not changed since the Tesla/Edison era. It is very outdated. I want to bring more information technology into the energy-processing field in order to update a very outdated system and make it smarter and more flexible.

Changing an electric grid is not like changing your cell phone, we need to start with baby steps. The process will be gradual. A lot of elements are involved, including technology development, economic analyses, and public policy. We have to start from basics. Once everything is done at the home level with solar panels, electric vehicles, and other devices and appliances, then we can move onto power substations and high-voltage applications at the larger scale.

More about the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

The mission of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment is to develop solutions to ensure our energy and environmental future. To this end, the center supports a vibrant and expanding program of research and teaching in the areas of sustainable energy-technology development, energy efficiency, and environmental protection and remediation. A chief goal of the center is to translate fundamental knowledge into practical solutions that enable sustainable energy production and the protection of the environment and global climate from energy-related anthropogenic change.

For more information on the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, contact Sharon Adarlo, communications specialist, at sadarlo@princeton.edu or (609) 258-9979.