IEEE Power & Energy Society President Dies at 69

IEEE also mourns the loss of several tech pioneers

3 min read
Sepia image of flowers

Frank Lambert

IEEE Power & Energy Society president

Life senior member, 69; died 27 July

Lambert was the IEEE Power & Energy Society's 2020–2021 president. An active member of the society since 1982, he held several positions on its governing board, including region representative and vice president of chapters. He also served on its switch gear committee.

He worked at Georgia Power in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and he was a principal research engineer at theNational Electric Energy Testing Research and Applications Center atGeorgia Tech for more than 25 years, becoming NEETRAC's associate director.

Lambert was a longtime supporter of the IEEE PES Scholarship Plus Initiative. He also championed IEEE Smart Village, a program that brings electricity—as well as educational and employment opportunities—to remote communities.

He had earned bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.

Mason Lamar Williams III

Codeveloper of the Williams-Comstock formula

Life Fellow, 78; died 28 June

Williams joined IBM in San Jose, Calif., in 1970 and spent his entire 32-year career there. He helped develop the Williams-Comstock formula, a critical design tool for magnetic recording systems. When Williams first joined IBM, he worked with Richard "Larry" Comstock, an IBM engineering manager, to characterize and test experimental magnetite film media. Together they developed the formula, which identifies factors that limit hard-disk storage capacity.

He also guided the development of thin-film disk drives, according to his biography on the Engineering and Tech History Wiki. He managed several magnetic recording projects during his career.

Williams was granted 27 U.S. patents during his time at IBM.

He was an active member of the IEEE Magnetics Society and received its 2007 Johnson Storage Device Technology Award.

In 2006 he became a distinguished lecturer and spoke about his work in Asia, Europe, and the United States.

After retiring from IBM in 2002, Williams volunteered at the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif. While there, he restored the world's first hard drive—the IBM RAMAC—which is on display at the museum.

He earned his bachelor's degree in engineering at Caltech and obtained a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

Jan Abraham "Braham" Ferreira

Past president of the IEEE Power Electronics Society

Fellow, 62; died 16 May

Ferreira was the 2015–2016 president of the IEEE Power Electronics Society.

An expert in power electronic converters, electrical machines, and novel grid components, he spent almost his entire career in academia, conducting research in power electronics.

Ferreira's first job, in 1981, was at the Institute of Power Electronics and Electric Drives atAachen University, in Germany. He worked there for a year before joining ESD Australia, in Cloverdale, as a systems engineer.

He left in 1985 to join the Rand Afrikaans University, now part of the University of Johannesburg. In 1998 he immigrated to the Netherlands to serve as chair of the power electronics laboratory at the Delft University of Technology. In 2006 he was promoted to head of the department. Eleven years later, he became director of the Delft-Beijing Institute of Intelligent Science and Technology.

In 2019 he joined the University of Twente, in Enschede, Netherlands, as a professor of electrical engineering. He established the Shenzen-Twente power electronics research program there. Its goal is to address key challenges of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, including battery storage integration, improving power quality, universal energy access, and increasing efficiency and reliability.

Ferreira authored or coauthored 130 journal and transactions articles and more than 400 conference papers. He was granted 15 patents.

He founded the IEEE Empower a Billion Lives global competition in 2018 to crowdsource ideas that could improve energy access in underserved communities.

Ferreira served as 2020 chair of the IEEE PELS International Technology Roadmap on Wide Bandgap Power Semiconductors.

He received several recognitions including this year's IEEE PELS Owen Distinguished Service Award, the 2017 IEEE Industry Applications Society's Outstanding Achievement Award, and that society's 2014 Kliman Innovator Award.

He earned his bachelor's degree, master's degree, and doctorate in electrical engineering from Rand Afrikaans in 1981, 1983, and 1988.

Jack Minker

Database and programming pioneer

Life Fellow, 94; died 9 April

Minker was a pioneer in deductive databases, a data analysis system, and in disjunctive logic programming, a set of logic rules and constraints that can be used when creating a database. He developed the generalized closed-world assumption, a theoretical basis for computer systems and programming languages.

After a career in industry working for Auerbach Engineering, Bell Aircraft, and RCA, he joined the University of Maryland in College Park in 1967 as a computer science professor. He became the first chair of the computer science department four years later and was named professor emeritus in 1998.

From 1973 until his death, he served as vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Scientists. From 1980 to 1989, he was vice chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery's Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights.

Minker earned a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College, in New York City, in 1949; a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1950; and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, in 1959.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.