John Volakis: Uncharted Waters

He defied the odds by becoming an engineer. Today, the IEEE Fellow uses the same sense of adventure to navigate new technologies

13 January 2012

Growing up on the Greek island of Chios (pronounced hee-os), IEEE Fellow John Volakis expected to follow the local tradition and go into shipping. He did, in a way. But instead of transporting goods, he transports data.

Volakis is a chair professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University in Columbus and director of its ElectroScience Laboratory. He is an expert on radio frequency electromagnetics, antennas, radar scattering, RFIDs, and wireless hardware.

Recently, his research team at the university developed a way to weave into clothing tiny threadlike antennas that can transmit the wearer’s biometric data to electronic medical devices. The idea is to create an inconspicuous, cost-effective, wireless communication and sensing system to monitor the vital signs of the elderly and disabled. The system can help reduce soaring health costs by cutting down on emergency room visits and allowing patients to live at home instead of a nursing facility or hospital. Currently, Volakis is working on finding funding sources for medical applications and physician training using the technology.

volakis Photo: A.J. Zanyk/The Ohio State University

“Radio waves already give you the ability to transfer large amounts of data, including pictures, in real time,” says Volakis. “Embedding antennas into clothes provides a new way to sense the body’s functions and send data to medical professionals without active participation from the patient or anyone noticing the presence of these electronics.”

Data from epidermal and subcutaneous sensors implanted in the patient would transmit body function information via Bluetooth to a roughly 1-centimeter- square chip in the textile antenna. The data would then be sent via Wi-Fi to a distant medical monitoring device.

The antennas Volakis used are made of fibers—variations of carbon nanotubes and synthetic polymers. Despite being coated in silver and encased in a protective polymer casing, they are thin (roughly 15 micrometers) and pliable enough to be used like thread, either in sewing machines or hand-woven directly into fabrics. The threads themselves are woven in a special manner that involves bundling thinner threads, braiding the bundles, and then stitching those bundles very densely to facilitate higher conductivity.

“You can make a blouse from material that has the conductivity of metal surfaces but feels like cloth and transmits RF signals,” Volakis notes. “We’re now looking at integrating chips into the stitched surfaces to allow connectivity with cellphones and iPods. The chips would amplify the signal between the textile antenna and the handheld, enabling the textile antenna to function as a signal booster.” His goal is to replace cellphone antennas with textile ones embedded in our clothes, which would turn cellphones into microphones and alleviate concerns about antennas radiating too closely to the head.

Volakis’s achievements are all the more significant when you consider his improbable journey. “My dream was to become an electrical engineer, because I grew up in a house without electricity and running water,” he says. “In less than 10 years, my life changed from the most primitive to the most modern.”

Volakis and his family left the small village of Olympi in 1973. They came to the United States so that he and his sister could get an education. Volakis was 17 and spoke no English. “As farmers, my parents did not have the financial means to prepare us for college in Greece,” he says. “Chios is where many shipping magnates come from. In all likelihood, I would have become a commercial shipping captain or pursued a trade.”

The following year, he’d learned enough English to attend Youngstown State University in Ohio, but it was hardly the typical college experience. “My American dream came about when, out of the blue, I got an offer from U.S. Steel Corp. in Youngstown for an engineering training job during the summer,” he says. “When I asked how they found me, they said, ‘We called the university, and they said you were one of the top three engineering students.’ ”

The news came as a complete surprise, Volakis says. “I didn’t even know I was at the top. I was working weekend and night jobs, driving my parents back and forth to work because they didn’t drive. I was like a machine. I didn’t have time to think. That’s how my career began.

“Working at U.S. Steel was the first time I saw automated machinery, from metal sheet pressing to the open-hearth furnaces,” Volakis continues. “I saw an engineering marvel, and I was part of it. I never thought there was another thing I would be interested in.”

By 1982, he’d earned bachelor’s in EE from Youngstown State and a master’s and Ph.D. in EE from Ohio State. For the next two years, he was a technical staff member at Rockwell International (now Boeing) in Columbus, Ohio, and Lakewood, Calif. “My job was to change antenna specifications and modernize the RF components of the B1 bomber,” he explains. “At 26 years old, that was a dream for me. It gave me an incredible amount of experience integrating many components into a large system.” It also gave him a comfort level pursuing riskier projects.

In 1984, he joined the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, becoming a full professor in 1994. He left in 2003 for his current position at Ohio State.

Volakis’s research trajectory followed technological advances over the next few decades. He spent the ’80s developing methods to calculate the radar reflectivity of material-coated structures, which had applications in stealth technology. The increase in computer processing power during the ’90s turned his attention to computational and design methods for electromagnetics. And the wireless revolution in the last decade, along with some grants from the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, caused him to focus his research on miniature and wideband antennas, as well as flexible, embeddable RF electronics.

Throughout his career, Volakis has held a number of IEEE volunteer roles, most notably as 2004 president of the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society and currently as a member of the IEEE Fellow Selection Committee.

The key to his successful career, he says, has been embracing risks and emerging technologies. “My research has always followed current technology needs,” he says. “I had to do some unusual things to get educated, which made me comfortable in taking risks. When our ideas failed, I wasn’t afraid to put in the time or try novel approaches to bring a concept to reality.”

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