Wired In: Philip Krein

Wired In: Philip Krein

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech entrepreneur. This week, meet PHILIP T. KREIN, the University of Illinois Grainger Emeritus Chair in Electric Machinery and Electromechanics who has been named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He's an alumni of his department, having earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the UI ois in 1980 and 1982, respectively. He's helped change many things in our lives, from the buttons on smartphones to easy-to-install solar panels.

You departed academia to work three years in industry, and re-joined the UI in 1987. The university noted that you helped establish the department as a leader in power electronics, a field that involves the study of semiconductors and electronic circuits for the conversion and control of energy. But in private industry, you worked on touch panels. How did you make that transition?

My first area of interest has always been electrical energy. About 12 years ago, I had a group of colleagues who really were interested in forming a start-up company. Part of it was related to electric vehicle work, but in the end a lot of it became linked to renewable energy. Over a period of about 10 years, we developed an inverter to work directly with a solar panel. It attaches to the back of a photovoltaic solar panel, and turns the DC output into a grid-ready, grid-friendly AC generator. It really simplified the solar installation process. There are several in installations on Champaign-Urbana that use this technology very successfully, and is an easy one to deal with. It's helped drop the cost of solar energy to the point where it's now actually cheaper than retail electricity. In 2014, that company was acquired by a major player in the industry; they now operate out of Austin, Texas.

How many start-ups have you been involved with?

In a leadership role, two. The first one was the solar inverter company, SolarBridge Technologies. There was an office here in town. It was bought ultimately by SunPower Corp.

The second is in what we call "stealth mode," so I'm not talking about just yet. But I'll tell you it's related to electric transportation.

How many patents do you have?

I think 41 right now.

And then of course your students have patents of their own.

That number I can't guess. I do have a few former students who are quite prolific inventors in their own right.

What was the first thing you invented?

Some of the touch-panel electronics we did at Tektronix. We did some of the earliest control methods for precision touch panels.

Why specifically did you come back to the UI?

There were a lot of opportunities in energy in the late 1980s; it was clearly a great opportunity. People had been interested in this a lot longer than that, but realistically, it's only been in the last five or 10 years that the issues we've been working with for so long have begun to really take off. And I think that's because the costs of renewable energy continue to come down. It used to be a niche kind of thing, but it no longer is. Today it's actually an economic advantage. Prices have come down enough for both wind and solar.

Why is that an advantage for utilities?

If a utility wants to add capacity, it's much, much faster to put up a windmill or a solar installation than to do anything else — coal and gas facilities are a few years to get the thing actually constructed. Nuclear takes decades. At this point, anybody changing the roof on their house can think about putting up solar panels at the same time.

What do you see as the future of renewable energy?

It's already here. Most of the growth is as we add capacity. It's true globally... it's true more so in places outside the U.S. than it is here. China is installing renewable energy as fast as they can, and this is also true in Europe. I'm looking forward to the day when very weak, struggling economies in North Africa figure out how to put a lot of solar panels in the desert and send power by cable under the Mediterranean to Europe. That doesn't require much technology innovation from today.

Do you think greater use could slow down climate change?

There's no question that renewable energy offsets a lot of carbon generation.

What advice do you have for somebody starting out in engineering and inventions?

Find your passion. Run with it. Don't compromise. For entrepreneurs, it's really important to gather a great team because you can't do it by yourself. Take your ideas and make them more and more concrete before you have to start the process of finding investors willing to pay for it.

Who has helped those inventors here?

There was an article in the paper a few weeks ago about the Office of Technology Management at UI. I've been interacting with that office for 30 years and I think it's been a really positive thing to see them grow into a strong local operation.


Do you have any wearable electronics? Kind of old school. I have a solar-powered watch that keeps multiple time zones and sets itself from global signals.

Are you on Facebook or Twitter? I've deliberately avoided these.

Do you have a website? Through the UI.

Do you prefer reading digitally or on a book? Books work best, especially when traveling.

What are you reading right now? "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville. It's a great way to put what's going on now in context.

Do you have a hero? I would say my original hero was probably Benjamin Franklin. He made the first electrical engineering device, the lightning rod.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Reykjavik wrote on January 07, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Phil Krein is one of the several heros associated with UIUC's Engineering juggernault.  When you here what good is education? Point to Krein and his students.