Adel Nasiri in yearbook style

New faculty spotlight: Adel Nasiri

Adel Nasiri joined the University of South Carolina as a distinguished professor of electrical engineering in August, following a 16-year career at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research on energy conversion, microgrids and batteries has taken on added import as sustainability, efficiency and resilience efforts ramp up during the age of climate change.

If you were to narrow your research interests to just one or two broad areas, what would those areas be?

The thrust of my research really is sustainable electrical energy systems. That's, of course, a big umbrella, but the idea is, how we can get electrical energy systems to be more sustainable, more efficient and more resilient? And how do you make changes to achieve those goals?

One area of my research is high power electrical energy conversion. Electrical energy has to be converted from one form to another, whether it’s a fossil fuel base or renewables, all types of energy. Some of them are in the form of AC and have to be converted to DC, or sometimes you have a lot of sources and the nature of the power that comes from one source doesn't match the load needs. So, we have to make conversions, and as energy systems move towards more sustainability, resilience and efficiency, the number of conversions goes up and up.

That's one thrust of my work. I also have very much interest in energy storage. How do we store energy? What type of energy storage do we use and for what application? I do most of my work in the area of batteries.

And the idea there is to store energy but also to regulate flow to and from different energy sources going into the power grid, right?

We need to convert intermittent or variable energy into a constant energy source, and energy storage happens to be the only solution there is. You can connect intermittent energy sources to the utility grid, but then you're not doing any service to the utility grid because the utility grid sees you as a burden — you are there when you want to be and you're not there when you don’t want to be. It doesn't know what to do with you because your power goes up and down and it cannot count on you. But as the power from the source comes in, you can put a battery in parallel with this source and then take the extra power to compensate for any shortcomings. You don't want to convert all of the power because there will be a lot of efficiency loss.

The thrust of my research really is sustainable electrical energy systems. That's, of course, a big umbrella, but the idea is, how we can get electrical energy systems to be more sustainable, more efficient and more resilient?

Adel Nasiri

You specifically do a lot of work with microgrids, where you have a small grid generating power, whether through solar, wind or whatever, that can feed into the larger grid but that can also separate off and become self-sustaining. That’s the idea behind a microgrid, right?

Yes. That is the technical definition. The word microgrid means that it can disconnect from the utility grid and feed loads within its system. If it cannot, it's not really called a microgrid; it's called a distributed energy resource system. That’s actually a big issue in California where they have all these solar PV systems. If the utility goes away for any reason, you lose everything, your solar panels, too.

Microgrids have gotten some media attention recently — stories where a place bet on microgrids and was able to get power back after a natural disaster faster than people tapped into the main grid. For example, there was a recent article in Fast Company about an apartment complex in New Orleans with a solar microgrid that had power restored in a matter of days after Hurricane Ida. What kind of lessons can we take from those instances?

You know, we are going to have more and more of these disruptive events. You can be on any side of this global warming discussion, but you cannot deny the evidence and the numbers. We know that the number and severity of the of these cases are going up and up. How many times has Louisiana been hit by a hurricane in the last few years? It's just unbelievable. And there are wildfires, which are becoming the norm.

Now for me, as an engineer — as someone who works with energy systems — this is really an opportunity. It's an unfortunate opportunity, what is happening, but it is an opportunity: How can we prevent this? We know these things are going to happen, now how can we use this idea of microgrids, for example, to help support people? We have the tools. We have the knowledge. What we want to do — what we could do — is consider this part of the critical energy infrastructure that has to change.

At University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, you were the site director for the NSF Center on Grid-connected Advanced Power Electronics Systems (GRAPES). Are you planning to build on those relationships here?

That's actually a very interesting story. GRAPES was established in 2010 by two universities and several industry members with support from the National Science Foundation. One of the universities was the University of Arkansas and the second was the University of South Carolina. In 2016, we joined and made it a three-university project. And then in 2017 we brought in six members, and then seven members — it just grew and grew. But for one reason or another, USC lost its member faculty and had to drop out. Now that I'm here, one of my goals is to revive that center here.

And what’s the biggest benefit of having the university become part of the GRAPES program again?

One benefit is that you work very closely with industry, which is a benefit to the students. It makes their work matter to them. At the same time, you get a lot of support from NSF for GRAPES projects, and if they’re seed projects conducted under GRAPES for a year or two, you can then go for larger grants from the Department of Energy, for example, or the Department of Defense.

You mention working with industry. What are you most excited about in terms of possible collaborations on campus, whether with undergraduates, grad students or other faculty?

I'm just trying to learn more about the university right now, meeting faculty, visiting labs, seeing who is doing what. I'm really impressed so far. The “power” faculty here is very strong. They have a good track record of doing research. And it’s not only them. The chemical engineering program is great, the mechanical engineering program is great, and we have great data programs. One of my long-term goals is to see if I can create a center or an institute on resilient energy systems, so I’m looking for collaborators on campus. Cyber resiliency is another topic: How we can make these energy systems cyber resilient? How can we build this umbrella energy system that is resilient at all levels? When you're looking at something system-level like that, you need expertise from everyone.

 How far back does your interest in electrical engineering go? Was this something you dreamed of growing up in Iran, or did your interest emerge during your studies?

I did my bachelor’s in electrical engineering, my master’s in electrical engineering, my Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and I've been working on electrical engineering the last 20 years, or really longer than that. Electrical engineering has been the thrust, and everything else that I’ve done, like data systems or energy storage, was about how we can solve electrical engineering problems and support those systems.

We’ve talked about research, but you also mentioned students. What’s your teaching philosophy?

The teaching philosophy is about how we get more electrical engineers and more electrical engineering students. This has been a big deal, you know, because from the outside the field seems really tough. We're talking about circuits, systems, electronics, all the equations, physics — for students deciding what to study it can seem very hard. So how can we show these students what’s beyond all that? Some faculty here are working on nanomaterials to make electrical systems, some are working on sensors, some of us are working on energy. Artificial intelligence and machine learning — that is based on electrical engineering. There's so much beyond the first few courses. Electrical engineering is almost a door to everything. It’s used to build our society.

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