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Doctoral Research Profile: Chukwuemeka Obikwelu

ORNL GEM participant studies methods to protect HVDC electric transmission systems


Andrea Rocha

Chukwuemeka Obikwelu, a participant in the 2017 GEM Fellowship program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, discusses his research on protection concepts for high-voltage, direct current electric power transmission systems during a technical presentation competition at ORNL. (Photo credit: ORNL)

From a young age, Chukwuemeka Obikwelu displayed the ingenuity of an engineer.

While other kids were playing with toys, he was building his own.

“I kept a junk box that contained materials, collected from different places, which I deemed as potentially valuable for either making or fixing something,” Obikwelu recalled.

When he wasn’t making or fixing something, he was looking to learn more.

“I was fascinated with how machines – from toys to appliances, to vehicles, to bigger electric components and systems – were assembled, how they functioned and why they failed,” he said.

That inquisitive nature served him well as a participant in the GEM Fellowship program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Obikwelu, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, conducted research within the Power Electronics and Electric Machinery Group at ORNL’s National Transportation Research Center under the guidance of Burak Ozpineci, Ph.D., and Suman Debnath, Ph.D.

Obikwelu’s research focused on protection concepts for high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) electric power transmission systems. The systems are critical for ensuring the reliability of power grids.

“Multi-terminal HVDC (MTDC) systems can provide reliable means to transfer massive volumes of electric power from various renewable generation sources over long distances to multiple load demand centers,” Obikwelu explained.

“In the absence of reliable system protection, a fault can result in the loss of an entire MTDC system. An example of a fault is a lightning strike causing a pole-to-ground short circuit. Therefore, research into developing robust and reliable system protection designs plays a significant role in preserving the value and operational reliability of MTDC systems. Ultimately, this will benefit the end user or electric power consumer.”

During his fellowship, Obikwelu recommended new designs for MTDC systems to benefit grid operations. He also studied the behavior of MTDC systems that experience faults and identified future research needed on MTDC protection concepts.

Obikwelu was one of three GEM Fellows picked to represent ORNL at the national GEM conference and technical presentation competition in New York, New York. There, Obikwelu placed second in the competition.

For Obikwelu, the GEM program at ORNL not only added to his interest in power electronics, but also offered an opportunity to meet other researchers and strengthen his professional network.

“I had a valuable experience, and I’d recommend ORNL to others,” he said.

The GEM Fellowship program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium for Graduate Engineering Degrees for Minorities and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. ORISE is managed by ORAU.