Arkansas Electrical Engineers Ride a Power Surge

UA electrical engineering alumnus Emmanuel Decrossas was responsible for the MarCo CubeSat, which went to Mars alongside the 2018 Insight lander.
UA electrical engineering alumnus Emmanuel Decrossas was responsible for the MarCo CubeSat, which went to Mars alongside the 2018 Insight lander.
The MarCo CubeSat, seen here in a display at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tested small spacecraft’s capability of relaying InSight’s data back to earth in real time during the critical entry, descent and landing phases of space flight.
The MarCo CubeSat, seen here in a display at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tested small spacecraft’s capability of relaying InSight’s data back to earth in real time during the critical entry, descent and landing phases of space flight.
Professor Brandon A. Kemp of the College of Engineering & Computer Science at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro
Professor Brandon A. Kemp of the College of Engineering & Computer Science at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro

Slide into a new car and you’re entering Alan Mantooth’s world.

All around are extensions of electrical engineering, from the LIDAR system tracking obstacles as you park to the antilock braking system halting you at the stoplight — even to the seat warmer, well, warming your seat.

“In a brand new car, there might be 15 or 20 computers, computer chips,” said Mantooth, an electrical engineer and professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “All these things are manifestations of how inexpensive and yet flexible electronics have become.”

Modern automobiles — especially electric vehicles — are just Mantooth’s handiest example of advances making electrical engineering a white-hot career field, ranked this year by as the No. 1 college major for a lucrative career. Starting salaries average $70,000 for bachelor’s graduates, and Kiplinger found 1.1 million online job postings in the field last year and a midcareer pay average of $118,000.

Graduate degree holders can do even better as utilities, traditional corporate employers like General Electric and universities all compete for job candidates. Electrical engineering hiring has grown by nearly 23 percent over the past decade, and jobs are expected to rise another 10 percent through 2029.

“The field has bloomed,” said Mantooth, a Hot Springs native who grew up in Jacksonville to become the first member of his family to graduate from college. “Smaller semiconductor circuits, the advent of the smartphone, solar power, space exploration. An electrical engineer today is coming into a field where high- and low-power electronics are everywhere.”

College Programs Thriving
Arkansas’ college programs in electrical engineering are thriving, with enrollment up over the past 10 years in all of the state’s accredited programs.

Mantooth said that interest declined after the dot-com bust of 2001, with many potential students shifting into mechanical engineering. But EE studies have been rebounding for a decade, and UA’s undergraduate program had 246 students last fall, up from 207 in 2014; the university had 88 doctoral students in electrical engineering last fall, up 72 percent from 51 just five years ago.

And opportunities for EE entrepreneurship have never been greater, said Professor Juan Balda, Mantooth’s colleague at UA. The Fayetteville campus has the state’s largest force of double-E’s, as electrical engineers call themselves, with nearly 300 students in bachelor’s and graduate programs. Arkansas Tech University in Russellville has about 175 EE undergraduates; Arkansas State University in Jonesboro has about 75.

“Salaries are $80,000 with a master’s degree to $120,000 with a Ph.D.,” said Balda. “Around northwest Arkansas there are great opportunities to develop startup companies. Our department is also collaborating with industry.”

Success stories with UA graduates include Arkansas Power Electronics Inc., a global leader in power modules and power electronics applications that was sold in 2015, becoming Cree Inc.’s Wolfspeed division. Another is Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc. of Fayetteville, led by Matt Francis, which specializes in building components for rugged environments, like space.

“If you’re a small company, you don’t have $5 million to set up and buy equipment,” Balda said. “So our research park here at UA offers opportunities to do work without having that money.”

Balda and Mantooth said innovations in semiconductors, hybrid materials, solar power, energy and space exploration, electric transportation and medical diagnostics are driving electrical engineering forward.

“Advanced work is being done in cybersecurity and renewables, and another aspect is new materials like silicon carbide in semiconductors,” Mantooth said.

Along with UA, A-State and Arkansas Tech, the state has four other collegiate electrical engineering programs accredited by ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology): Harding University in Searcy, John Brown University in Siloam Springs, the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Journey to Mars
One UA electrical engineering Ph.D., Emmanuel Decrossas, sent his work all the way to Mars. Working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Decrossas’ engineering work helped prove that small spacecraft can transmit data back to earth while maneuvering in deep space.

He helped develop the MarCo CubeSat, antennae that flew to the red planet alongside the 2018 InSight lander, relaying InSight’s data back to Earth in real time during the mission’s difficult entry, descent and landing phases. The tests were a success, and the technology could fly again on future missions.

Decrossas said his studies at Arkansas were crucial in launching his NASA career, and he singled out a mentor, electrical engineering Professor Samir M. El-Ghazaly. “A lot of professors have a tendency to direct you on how to do the work, but Dr. El-Ghazaly is a little bit different. He wants you to figure out the solution on your own,” Decrossas said.

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Another UA supergraduate, CEO Douglas Hutchings of Picasolar Inc. of Fayetteville, started Silicon Solar Solutions in Fayetteville while getting his doctorate, and now is an industry leader in improving solar cell efficiency.

UA’s engineering teams have been crucial partners in creating a technological hotbed in the Fayetteville area, Hutchings said.

“In the past decade we have seen a large resurgence of hardware entrepreneurship as small-scale production of custom and semi-custom parts became possible,” he told Arkansas Business. “When you think how much stuff has electronics in it today, electrical engineering touches all aspects of our lives.”

“Locally, folks like Wolfspeed, Little Bird Systems [led by CEO Bryon Western, a UA engineering graduate and wireless telemetry expert] and Ozark Integrated Circuits all leverage electrical engineering talent in different ways. Electrical engineering with exposure to programming is an extremely powerful combination today, and the UA does a great job of preparing students in both disciplines.”

New College at A-State
At Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, which combined two colleges into its College of Engineering & Computer Science last year, Professor Brandon A. Kemp studies how electromagnetic waves affect materials at microscopic and nanoscopic levels.

“We are interested in understanding how the energy and momentum in electromagnetic waves [like light, radio waves and microwaves] can manipulate materials,” said Kemp, the university’s Verbeth and Henry Ezra Coe professor of electrical engineering. “This can allow us, for example, to design new materials that are controlled and tuned by electric field, magnetic field or electromagnetic waves.”

A Jonesboro boy who got his bachelor’s at A-State before earning his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kemp works on possibilities that electromagnetic forces might allow for “microscopic tractor beams” that could manipulate cells or particles on a surface, “for the design of invisibility cloaks, for enhanced propulsion by light in space applications, and the design of controllable materials and surfaces with the ability to change color and act as optical filters.”

Kemp, who like Balda and Mantooth worked in industry before returning to academia, thinks the world is entering an era of technological innovation to rival the industrial revolution, the adoption of electricity and the development of the internet. Artificial intelligence and bioelectrical engineering, “where electronics and biological systems interface and work together in a system,” could reshape the world, he believes. “Both of these areas include electrical engineering.”

AI is the domain of computer engineering, considered a branch of electrical engineering, but a field that stands as its own department on many campuses. Computer engineering ranked third, behind EE and nursing, on Kiplinger’s lucrative majors list.

“AI … will require novel computing hardware and energy usage solutions,” Kemp said. “Bioelectrical engineering is a multidisciplinary field that applies electrical engineering design principles to biology, medicine and behavior.” Applications include sensors that interface with the human body and tools like optical tweezers that use electromagnetics to manipulate drugs or living cells.”

The plentiful jobs and exciting research are enough to recharge a veteran teacher. “I wish I was 23 rather than 63,” said Balda, the UA professor, who once worked for Argentine utility Hidronor SA. “There are a lot of gray-haired electrical engineering professors who are going to need to be replaced as they retire, and that will be more potential jobs.”

Mantooth, Balda’s UA colleague, sees bold work ahead in power electronics, electric grid modernization and electric vehicles.

“People like the idea of working in these fields, and our program in power electronics at UA is the largest in America,” he said. “We have 14 faculty members focused on technology and applications in the energy sector. We study the power electronics, semiconductors, circuits and design tools, basically everything needed to build systems for grid modernization and electric vehicles.”

And don’t expect the challenges to get easier, said Professor Kemp of Arkansas State. “The next generation of college graduates will have some significant problems to face including providing food and water to 7 billion-plus people in a sustainable way, global climate change, ethical use and implementation of AI, and changing economic demands resulting from new technologies.”

And then there’s the test of producing, transmitting and efficiently using energy. “Electrical engineers will be essential in the last one,” Kemp said, “but I believe they could have a significant role in those other major challenges as well.”