Prof. Marcelo Lobo Heldwein received the B.S. and M.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Florianópolis, Brazil, in 1997 and 1999, and the Ph.D. degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland, in 2007. His research interests include power electronics, advanced power distribution technologies and electromagnetic compatibility. The chair´s research focuses on the topology, modelling, design and control of power converters.
ED: How did you become who you are?
I was born and raised in Brazil and studied there until I got my Master's degree. My father was an architect and my mother was a pedagogue who trained teachers. They had a library at home with books on education, architecture, and philosophy, so I read a lot. I found the books and the creative work very interesting, and I had the idea of becoming a teacher for children. So, my parents, and also my grandparents, influenced me a lot on that part.
When I finished basic school at the end of my ninth year at school, my parents took me on a tour of the city to get to know the secondary school and the high schools. They were all quite different: there were church-related schools, public schools, and a technical school. I really liked the environment there, so I decided to apply and was accepted. In the second year, pupils had to choose between electricity, civil works, mechanics or electronics – and I chose electricity. After school I started studying electrical engineering at university, mainly by chance, but still I had some electronic hobbies. I always liked to build stuff at home or disassemble things. That was also shaping the choices I made later on.
After finishing my Master's degree, I stayed in Florianópolis, in the south of Brazil, at an institute affiliated to the university. I was still not a Ph.D. student, but it helped me to find out that I liked research. Then I joined a technology company and moved to São Paulo, Brazil, and to Stockholm, Sweden. The project I was working on was already related to chargers, but for telecommunications systems. Then, in 2001/2002, there was a crisis in the telecommunications business. And my employer decided to close the resarch and development centres around the world and move these activities to China. I wanted to leave the company and work in China. On my way to Brazil on holiday, I stopped in Zurich for two days and met Professor Johann Walter Kolar, who offered me a job in his laboratory. In the middle of my holiday, I had to decide between a career in China or a Ph.D. in Switzerland. So this pure coincidence led me to my background plan of becoming a professor one day.
ED: What will be your first research project?
The first one has already started: Last December, we established an important research cooperation with Bosch research in the filed of future power-electronics. The research is on chargers for future electrical vehicles, which we call “on-board chargers”. The main idea is to make them more efficient and to reduce the volume of the charger in the car to at least half of what is the standard in the automotive industry now. The key is to reduce the amount of material, such as raw materials and components, but maintain the same functionality. That is one of the main areas of research at our chair: How can we be more sustainable in the sense that we want to use less material to do the same thing (electronics-base power conversion)?
The other objective is not to waste energy. How do you design this type of conversion equipment in a very efficient way? I think those are the two main goals of our research. We are not only doing research for electric vehicles or other applications such as renewable energy. For example, for solar photovoltaic applications, you also need electronic interfaces between the solar panels and the electric network. And this interface is also a focus of our research. We want to do the same thing there: how can we use all the energy that the panels can give us and feed it into the grid without losing it in the conversion stage, while operating in a friendly way to the grid?
These two examples are very important today because we live in an energy-intensive society. We can only be able to be sustainable if we waste less energy and integrate new energy systems. And in all these new systems - wind, solar, electric vehicles - you need these electronic interfaces. We are in the process of realising that these electronic interfaces are also wasting energy. They´re taking up space, they're requiring raw materials. With the pandemic, we have a very big logistical crisis with electronic components. If fewer components were needed, we´d be better off because we wouldn’t have to ship so many things around.
ED: What changes would you like to see in the future?
Everything is interconnected. One of the main directions I would like to drive our research is to use less material. We are researching electric cars, but maybe they are not the best solution? I think that's the main thing we should be looking at: using fewer resources overall. That is the change I would like to see.
Link to the Chair of High-Power Converter Systems: https://www.epe.ed.tum.de/en/hlu/home/