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Future of Flight

Packing a Punch: This GE Engineer Is Designing a High-Tech ‘Suitcase’ for Electric Air Travel

Chris Noon
March 01, 2023

Satish Prabhakaran almost missed his calling as an engineer. In the summer of 1994, the 14-year-old Prabhakaran, a native of Chennai, India, was on summer break with family in the United Kingdom. While there he had the opportunity to intern at a local hospital. The placement was intended to give him a taste for the career in medicine that would surely follow, remembers Prabhakaran. “My dad’s a doctor, and my mom’s a chemistry lecturer,” he says. “There was an assumption that I’d probably end up being a doctor too.”

But as he watched live surgery of hip and knee operations in the hospital’s orthopedics unit, Prabhakaran discovered that he wasn’t particularly interested in the biology and pathology of the body’s joints. He was mesmerized, however, by the intricate mechanics of arthroplasty. “I was much more impressed by the ‘medical carpentry’ that I saw,” he says, referring to the way that orthopedic surgeons replace, remodel, and realign human bones and tissue. 

That summer, Prabhakaran reassessed his career ambitions. A few months later, he walked into the lecture halls at the prestigious University of Madras in Chennai to begin a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. A decade later, he walked out of the gates of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire with a PhD for his cutting-edge research on the manufacturing process of microprocessors, the tiny chips in computer systems that perform arithmetic and logic operations. “I ended up a doctor, just not a medical one,” Prabhakaran says. 

Medicine’s loss is aviation’s gain. Prabhakaran is putting his power electronics and systems expertise to work as a technology leader at GE Research in Schenectady, New York, heading up a team that is helping to solve one of the toughest engineering challenges of the modern day: electric air travel. Last year, GE Aerospace and NASA successfully tested components of a megawatt-scale hybrid electric aircraft engine in conditions simulating flight altitudes. They’re now looking forward to the mid-2020s, when they’ll perform a real flight demonstration to test that their hybrid system, which has the potential to vastly improve the efficiency and sustainability of air travel, is ready for the skies. With aviation accounting for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, hybrid electric propulsion technologies could do a lot to help bring the number down.


Satish family


“Electricity is agnostic to the type of fuel that airplanes use, whether it’s gas, hydrogen, or liquid fuels,” explains Prabhakaran. “We’re defining a platform for electric propulsion that could be adaptable to any of those fuel choices and combinations we might make in the future.” 

Prabhakaran’s knowledge, experience, and leadership are integral to this era-defining platform. He’s a guru of power electronics, the branch of engineering that deals with the conversion of electricity into the right “flavor” for its end use. The hybrid system needs a robust and sophisticated power train to process the electricity produced by the airplane’s power plant — in this case, a gas turbine — which drives the craft’s propellers. Since altitudes of 35,000 feet impose limits on space and weight, this crucial electronic componentry needs to be compact and light, explains Prabhakaran. “We’re actually aiming for the size of a suitcase,” he says. 

Prabhakaran has long been an expert miniaturist. He developed several cutting-edge magnetic components for mobile computing applications as part of his PhD. The trouble was, they were too large and heavy to fit onto microprocessors. “In order to shrink the components, I had to learn material science and develop new clean-room processes,” he explains. Similarly, he and his team are learning many new skill sets to shrink aircraft engine components for flight.

His talents attracted attention from GE Research, which was collaborating with Dartmouth on various research programs. They called him for an interview, which he describes as “one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had.” A lively debate broke out over electromagnetism, which revolves around a set of laws called Maxwell’s equations. This was no time to be a shrinking violet, explains Prabhakaran. “I stood up and disagreed with them, and explained my reasons why.”

He was rewarded for standing his ground. A few weeks later, Prabhakaran began a role as a senior engineer at the esteemed institution, developing power systems for flight control, avionics, and engine control for GE Aerospace’s use.


Satish Prabhakaran parents


He had joined GE Research just as his profession was starting to make huge leaps forward with semiconductors. Electronic engineers were beefing up solar farms and electric vehicles with silicon carbide semiconductors, which can handle much higher voltages and temperatures than their silicon predecessors.

The silicon carbide revolution was also a game changer for Prabhakaran’s career. “I’d seen the material make its way through everything on land, such as the power grid and the automotive industry,” he says. “The obvious question was ‘Why not fly it?’”

And that’s exactly the question that Prabhakaran and his team are now answering. But they need their components to be more than just compact. “They’ve got to be safe, reliable, and top-of-class to buy themselves onto our airplane,” he explains. “The plane is going to have high voltages and will be carrying people.”

When Prabhakaran isn’t in the lab finding new ways to shrink his flavor-making components, he’s acting as a go-between for the technical and business teams at GE Research’s aviation-focused programs. He’s also an important ambassador for the hybrid electric program, and regularly explains the research to businesses and government bodies who are helping to support the initiative.