Power Electronics Engineers according to Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc., is “one of the oldest branches in engineering.” As new branches of engineering have continued to evolve, power electronics engineers have continued to play a critical role in advancing technology. From the earliest application of the mercury arc rectifier in 1902 to the present, power electronics engineering has provided other engineers with the electrical power necessary to drive their technological advances.
One area of engineering where these specialized engineers have enabled rapid technological advances is aerospace engineering. In the realm of aerospace, power electronics engineers develop the infrastructure for converting and distributing the electrical power generated by jet engines, fuel cells, and solar arrays into the voltages and currents required by aircraft and spacecraft.
Advances in power engineering have been mainly related to the large-scale alternating current voltages and currents required by cities with power measured in mega- or gigawatts. In contrast, most aircraft and spacecraft operate on a 28-volt direct current bus with power levels measured in kilowatts. Traditionally, the distribution and control of power in aerospace applications involved the use of the same mechanical breakers and instruments that have been in use for the last century.
Power electronics engineering has become forefront as aerospace engineers seek to decrease weight and maximize performance of aircraft and spacecraft. The mechanical breakers and instruments are being replaced by solid-state controllers that utilize computerized advanced control algorithms to optimize the distribution of power to the avionics of aircraft and spacecraft.
As aviation has become more electrified, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, reports that the use of Thyristors, GTOs, IGBTs, and silicon-based technology plays an increasing role in how aircraft operate. The sensitivity of these electronic components, which are used in both military and commercial aircraft, and the critical role these components play in ensuring safe flight, mean that without properly developed power distribution systems, these components may be exposed to power fluctuations that could cause the failure of the entire aircraft.
According to NASA, in spacecraft applications, power systems involve the input of power from solar arrays, the output of power to individual spacecraft components, and the system control circuitry that enables the effective transmission and storage of the power. Although the use of power systems onboard spacecraft has evolved greatly since the Space Race, this evolution has resulted in a larger gap between traditional power electronics engineering and how power is generated, stored, and distributed onboard spacecraft. As space agencies around the world continue to push further beyond Earth’s orbit, the need for more advanced power engineering technology will require a new breed of power electronics engineers.
To take advantage of new technologies, power electronics engineers must be able to understand computer technology and the development of the algorithms that make these new power distribution and control systems function. Yet, for many current power electronics engineers, learning how to operate in a digital world after spending decades in an analog world may seem impractical, especially when there are analog systems still in use in other engineering applications.
New Engineer reports that the world is facing a general shortage of engineers because engineers are retiring faster than new engineers are being trained. This is especially true in the United States and Europe, where many students are choosing career paths unrelated to engineering and technology. One area that is particularly hard-hit with this engineering shortage is power systems engineering. This is because, despite its importance, power electronics engineering is a relatively unknown field.
The EETimes has identified this shortage of power engineers as a danger to military readiness. The role of aerospace in the military – from advanced fighter jets and bombers to space-based assets like GPS or monitoring satellites – has enabled the twenty-first century warrior to wage a new type of war. These advances, and their counterparts in commercial, scientific, and educational aerospace, have been made possible, in part, by the sift to digital power control and distribution systems. However, without new power electronics engineers who understand these digital systems filling the gaps left by the retirement of the previous generation, advancements in aerospace may be in jeopardy.
Power electronics engineers have enabled the growth of other fields of engineering over the last century. The role of power engineering in aerospace has led to advances in aviation and spacecraft technology over the last century. Yet, as aerospace technology continues to embrace the use of digital power distribution and control, the lack of power engineers with an understanding of these digital systems is becoming more apparent.
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