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College of Engineering and Computing

  • Ralph White smiles.

Ralph White and the growth of the ‘Berkeley Mafia’

By Abe Danaher | November 1, 2019

Ralph White proudly displays three medals at the edge of his desk­ as proof of his transformative effect on the electrochemistry field.

The medals – the Olin Palladium Award for his distinguished contributions to the field of electrochemistry, the Vittorio de Nora Award for his distinguished contributions to the field of electrochemical engineering and the Henry B. Linford Award for Distinguished Teaching – are the result of over 340 refereed papers, 79 contributions to published books, 50 doctoral students graduated and more than 45 years dedicated to studying batteries.

But the reason they are there – lids open, metal polished – is not to brandish his own success. More than anything, the medals represent the world-altering network White has created largely at the University of South Carolina. 

Through battery simulation methods he learned from his mentor and passed down to his students, White has created a family tree that includes members in the country’s top universities and private companies. He calls it the “Berkeley Mafia” and adds confidently, “We are taking over the world.”

Because of the simulation that I learned and passed on to my students, companies are beginning to think, ‘Well, maybe we should try to simulate a battery first before we spend a lot of money building it.’

Ralph White

The seeds of this network were planted at the University of California at Berkeley by White’s mentor, John S. Newman. In 1974, White began pursuing his doctorate under Newman’s tutelage, and he learned to create mathematical models that could accurately forecast the performance of batteries. At the time, demand for this battery simulation knowledge was low, and White says there was only one other university in the country that offered this expertise. Outside of Berkeley, few understood the benefits that simulation offered.

When White completed his doctorate in 1977, he immediately became an assistant professor at Texas A&M. He continued his research on simulation and by 1984 had graduated his first doctoral student.

It was about that time that other universities started taking note of the battery simulation work coming out of College Station, Texas. One of those was the University of South Carolina, who believed they could lure back White, a 1971 graduate from the university, with a simple message: come home.

David Waugh reminisces back to his time as the dean of the College of Engineering and Computing from 1977-1987. He remembers specific visits to Texas A&M, where he tried to convince White to come to South Carolina. For years, White continually told him no. It wasn’t until 1993, when the university received a grant from the Savannah River Site that made the offer to White almost undeniable, that White decided to come to South Carolina and forever change its chemical engineering department.

“He set a standard for what a chemical engineering faculty member ought to be, and during his time as department chair and as dean, he had faculty that could and did meet those expectations,” Waugh says. “So, if you look at the faculty now, it’s full of people who are there because of the standards Ralph White established.”

Even in his early years at Texas A&M, White was a titan in his field. But, despite the academic acclaim his papers were receiving, overall demand for battery simulation knowledge was still limited. That all changed, though, in the late 1990s with the advancement of the lithium ion battery for commercial use and the proliferation of the technology sector that accompanied it. 

So, if you look at the faculty now, it’s full of people who are there because of the standards Ralph White established.

Dean David Waugh

The lithium ion battery was revolutionary and opened the gates to the laptops, phones, cars and other technologies we have today. From it grew companies like Apple and Tesla, and with it came a newfound importance for the battery simulation knowledge that White possessed.

“Because of the simulation that I learned and passed on to my students,” White says, “companies are beginning to think, ‘Well, maybe we should try to simulate a battery first before we spend a lot of money building it.’“

This increase in the demand for battery simulation knowledge has led to an increase in demand for White and his students, with past doctoral students now working at Apple, Tesla, Seres and General Motors India. Despite the proliferation of the battery business, there are still only about 10 universities providing the education to simulate electrochemical systems, and even fewer focusing specifically on simulating batteries. This means that White’s students are one of the few options to fill this new demand.

Jenn-Feng Yan was a doctoral student under White at Texas A&M and is now a lead engineer at Apple involved in energy storage research. There he works with batteries, but he is no longer involved with their simulation and modeling. What he learned from White, though, has been instrumental in leading him to his current position.

“The information that we learned from Ralph has given us the confidence we need to continue our work,” Yan says.

This was also echoed by Venkat Subramanian, a past doctoral student of White’s who was recently hired as an endowed professor by the University of Texas at Austin. He says, “If I had not worked with Professor White, I would probably have ended up as somebody who works in industry. I don’t think I could have achieved what I have achieved today without his guidance and advising during my Ph.D. time.”

As for White, at age 76 he is still working at the University of South Carolina. He is still doing research, still publishing in journals and still teaching doctoral students. And, if he has his way, that will not be changing any time soon.

“I want to work until I drop dead here at my desk,” he says through a smile.

When he eventually calls it quits, though, his impact will live on. His family tree is growing and with technology advancing, the worth of his knowledge is only growing too. His past students are now mentoring new students, growing his network from children to grandchildren.

What started in California with Newman has found its home in South Carolina with White, and as it continues to grow one thing is clear: the Berkeley Mafia is taking over the world and there is nothing that can stop them.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.