Alan Mantooth: Plumbing For Green

The IEEE Fellow is busy with all things energy efficient

5 February 2010

Alan Mantooth had figured he’d be a plumber. After all, his grandfather, father, older brother, and two uncles were all plumbers. But his relatives decided there were enough people slinging pipe wrenches in the family, so Mantooth took a different route.

Plumbing’s loss is green technology’s gain. Mantooth, an IEEE Fellow, has his hands in a dizzying array of research aimed at greater energy efficiency.

He’s a professor of mixed-signal IC design and computer-aided design (CAD) in the electrical engineering department at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville. There Mantooth heads the Mixed Signal Computer-Aided Design Laboratory, where researchers create modeling tools for circuit simulation and electronics that operate in extreme conditions such as in outer space. The researchers also develop more robust and energy-reducing power electronics for oil drilling rigs, cars, and smart grids. That work earned the lab a 2009 R&D 100 Award for technological innovation from R&D magazine.

Mantooth’s lab has teamed up with three industry and four university research partners to work on a NASA project called Silicon-Germanium Integrated Electronics for Extreme Environments. The U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Pasadena, Calif., also is contributing to the effort.

Mantooth helped found Lynguent of Portland, Ore. The company developed the first software to support multiple modeling languages for computer-aided circuit design—a tool that can streamline the design process for smart-grid and energy-efficient circuit hardware.

In addition, he oversees the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission, where a team of UA electrical engineers is researching ways to modernize the U.S. power grid. In particular, he directs NCREPT’s new Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on Grid-Connected Advanced Power Electronic Systems (GRAPES), a program funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation that is jointly conducted with the University of South Carolina. GRAPES focuses on smart-grid research and computerized control of electrical energy production and usage.

And to get a break from all those jobs, Mantooth organizes UA’s annual intercollegiate Solar Splash, a competition for solar-electric-powered boats built by engineering students from around the world.

After being read the no-plumbing riot act, Mantooth, who grew up in Jacksonville, Ark., attended UA on a football scholarship.

“When I saw I wasn’t good enough to be pro, I eventually decided on electrical engineering,” he says. “This was the early ’80s. Computers weren’t on every desk yet, and I was becoming very enamored with the growing popularity of electronics.”

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in EE from UA in 1985 and 1986, and a doctorate in EE from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1990. After graduating, he became a CAD engineer for Analogy, a Portland firm (now part of Synopsis) specializing in electronic-design automation. It was there that he met the engineers who would help him launch Lynguent nearly 15 years later.

In 1998, he left Analogy and returned to UA as an associate professor, becoming full professor in 2002. The software that led to Lynguent emerged during his early university research. In 2004, he contacted his old posse of engineers back in Portland to help him turn the software he was working on into a commercial product. “Many of the design languages are often incompatible with one another, but we figured out a way for engineers to accomplish model-based design activities independently of the underlying language,” he says.

The NASA group with which Mantooth is involved is developing more durable electronics, such as circuits for processing sensor data and for controlling spacecraft traveling to the moon and Mars. This group’s designs have been tested on the International Space Station and are under consideration for deployment on next-generation spacecraft, including the Ares Rockets, along with various moon and Mars landers and rovers.

The challenge for the researchers was to design and build smaller electronics that can function while being subject to high levels of radiation and in temperatures ranging from –180ºC to 125ºC, so that they don’t need to be encased in a temperature-controlled box, which adds extra weight and bulk. Mantooth’s group accomplished that by developing circuits made from silicon germanium instead of silicon. The space-industry standard had been silicon because it was relatively cheap, plentiful, and easy to use.

Mantooth and his power-electronics research team leveraged some of their extreme-environment design expertise into an award-winning advanced power module. It uses silicon carbide semiconductors that can operate in temperatures as high as 600ºC, and it may prove quite useful for smart grids and electric and hybrid cars.

One of Mantooth’s favorite engineering pursuits has been organizing Solar Splash, the intercollegiate solar-electric boating world championship, which is partially sponsored by IEEE. The next event is scheduled for June. Students spend five days vying for points in categories such as technology, visual display, workmanship, and maneuverability, along with endurance and sprinting races.

“These boats can go up to 40 mph [64 kph]. It’s a tradeoff between designing a boat that can run fast under battery power and yet be efficient at a slower cruising speed under solar power—which presents an interesting design challenge for students,” Mantooth says. “It’s instructive to see how students respond under pressure and rewarding to see how well they work together.”

All his focus on cutting-edge green technology hasn’t completely severed Mantooth from his roots, though. “I do know how to unclog a septic system,” he says, laughing.

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