When the University of Houston officials went searching for a leader with the skills, experience and vision to guide an innovative effort that promises to energize the high-temperature superconductor industry, they turned to Syed Ahmed.
A power systems engineer, professor and successful executive, Ahmed was named the executive director of UH’s Advanced Superconductor Manufacturing Institute (ASMI) in February. An industry-based consortium, ASMI was created to speed up the full commercialization of high-temperature superconductors.
Last year, UH established ASMI after Venkat Selvamanickam, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Applied Research Hub at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, received a $500,000 planning grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Selvamanickam, who serves as principal investigator of the grant, has charged Ahmed with the task of guiding this new initiative.
“The institute will work with the private sector, academia and others to close the gap between fundamental research and manufacturing of high-temperature superconductivity devices,” Ahmed said.
Lightweight and powerful, superconductor devices are used in energy, health care and transportation and offer advantages over conventional technology, including increased efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturing such devices in a cost effective and efficient manner, though, poses a problem for private sector.
Identifying strategies to overcome obstacles to low-cost, high-volume production and quality assurance and reliability testing is the institute’s primary goal, a challenge Ahmed welcomes.
His expertise in taking research, power systems and computer controls projects from concept to completion skills that will serve him well at UH.
Before coming to the University, Ahmed spent more than 20 years with Southern California Edison Company, working on various projects, including the U.S. Department of Energy High Temperature Superconductivity Initiative. He has been involved with the business and technical side of the effort from designing generating stations and industry substations and leading research and development efforts in power systems to the development and testing of the first high temperature superconducting fault current limiter.
Ahmed’s experience in academia is equally impressive. He has taught at the University of California, Irvine and at the University of Southern California and has served as assistant dean of the West Coast University College of Engineering and Computer Science. Ahmed earned an M.B.A. from the University of California, Riverside and a Master of Science and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine. Clearly, Ahmed is more than ready for the challenge.
Ahmed predicts that ASMI will be fully operational in two years. Already, more than 50 companies have joined the institute. Ahmed credits the institute’s success thus far to strong advocates such as UH President Renu Khator, Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at UH and acting vice president for research and technology transfer, Selvamanickam and Allan Jacobson, Robert A. Welch Chair of Science and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH.
“There is no other university like UH in terms of the support for commercialization of high-temperature superconductors,” Ahmed said. “I am proud to be here.”
Ahmed’s interest in engineering dates to his childhood in Pakistan. There, his father, a civil engineer, and his mother, who strongly believed in education for him and his eight siblings, greatly influenced him.
“I wanted to be an engineer from day one,” Ahmed said, recalling how he often disassembled transistor radios when he was as young as seven. “I wanted to see how they worked, but sometimes I couldn’t put them back together.”
And just as his parents motivated him, Ahmed, along with his wife of 41 years, Rifat, also has inspired his children, who have followed in his footsteps. Their daughter, Nadia, has achieved academic success as a doctoral electrical engineering student at the University of California, Irvine. Their sons, Raafay and Nabeel, are pursuing engineering careers at Southern California Edison and Intel, respectively.
As far his career, Ahmed has found what he describes as his “dream job,” after more than 40 years in power system engineering, and he is excited about leading the institute and helping transform the high-temperature superconductor industry.