Electrical engineers are at the forefront of some of today’s most important innovations. Whether working for the private sector, government, or major research institutes, electrical engineers are always pushing the boundaries of the possible. Recently, they’ve contributed to huge strides in energy efficiency, mobile technology, accessibility, transportation, telecommunication, and much more. Let’s take a look at some of the most exciting new ideas in the field.
High Efficiency Photovoltaic Cells
One of the enduring challenges of modern electrical engineering is to find an implementation of photovoltaic technology that is efficient, effective under varying operating conditions, and highly resistant to damage – while not being cost-prohibitive. Different engineering approaches have been used to raise collection and distribution efficiency, though perovskite-based cells have recently captured the most attention at major research facilities.
Green Energy Electrical Power Converter
Once you collect energy, converting it for use in the electrical system is an essential next step. A new power converter developed in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Arkansas will now make it easier for users of renewable energy to shunt excess energy into the power grid. This has the potential to make rooftop solar initiatives much easier and to further incentivize homeowners to pursue energy efficient technology.
Smart Electrical Grids
As energy systems become more complex and energy sources become more diverse, smart grids are growing in importance worldwide. Smart grids integrate innovative electrical technology at multiple levels to improve flow control, detect malfunctions, and automate service delivery. With end-to-end communication between power plants, distribution sites, and the end user’s electrical point-of-presence, it becomes possible to raise efficiency and reduce costs.
Virtual reality draws on multiple disciplines, but in terms of providing a sensory experience that maps effectively to “real life,” electrical engineering is crucial. The earliest VR technologies consisted of a headset with gloves as an input device, rendering the user mostly stationary. Positional tracking is now making VR more interactive, but the market has yet to develop a solution using a complete array of sensors.
Eye Tracking Technology
As many consumers develop an adversarial relationship to conventional digital advertising, eye tracking becomes essential – not only to deliver commercial messages, but to better understand what information is of greatest interest. As it has matured, eye tracking technology has grown into an important frontier in accessibility for the disabled, allowing technology access through eye movement. Sensitive electronic sensors are the basis of virtually all eye tracking.
Wireless Wearable Tech
The idea of the “Personal Area Network” has been around in computing science for a long time, but it’s only now becoming a practical reality. Devices can now operate on a smaller scale than ever and interface seamlessly with the wider environment. Wearable devices have been developed to authenticate access to vehicles and machinery, improve reading comprehension while engaged in exercise, and provide communications information without the use of a phone.
As electrical engineers reach the performance constraints caused by the fundamental properties of matter, advances in materials science become essential. Graphene is perhaps the most important recent innovation. Graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms one million times thinner than paper. It’s so thin that it is actually considered two-dimensional.
Graphene’s unique characteristics make it the strongest known material on Earth. It can stretch by 20%, making it as pliable as rubber. It will provide immense gains in battery life for portable devices and is uniquely well-suited for wearable technology that collects biometric information from the user. In short, it may be essential to the future of electrical engineering.
Ion Thruster Energy
It comes as no surprise Star Trek was a defining force in inspiring thousands of people around the world to develop and pursue an interest in engineering. One of the engineering challenges presented by that vision of the future was this: What kind of novel propulsion technology would be necessary to allow manned spaceflight to distant worlds?
NASA and others have been working on the prototype ion engine for years, envisioning a way to carry large amounts of supplies and equipment through space. It uses solar power as a charging mechanism and expels xenon gas. Electrons from the solar panel will be trapped in a magnetic field and then used to ionize the xenon propellant for total thrust of 13kW.
Personal Flying Cars
People – engineers and others – have been thinking about flying cars since The Jetsons. Now, a private U.S. firm called Terrafugia is tackling the engineering challenges necessary to deliver a personal flying craft that offers the control and safety required for regular civilian use. It calls its flagship product The Transition, which combines driving and flying in a single vehicle.
To create a commercially viable dual-use vehicle, Terrafugia has had to combine best practices in automotive technology and aeronautics. This includes a number of innovations of keen interest to electrical engineers, including an engine that successfully powers both the rear wheels and the propeller using unleaded gasoline. It also incorporates advanced carbon fiber construction.
The maximum speed of Internet connectivity, whether wired or wireless, has always been defined by foundational challenges in electrical engineering – semiconductor size and composition, for example. Each advance in speed represents a fundamental shift in engineering processes, whether from applying novel materials, new transmission media, or other technology.
Back in 2013, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany broke the speed limit for Wi-Fi by delivering 40 gigabytes of data per second over a distance of more than half a mile. The key innovation was a new set of chips capable of processing signals at higher-than-usual frequencies. The shorter the wavelength, the more powerful Wi-Fi can theoretically be.