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Prof. Kaushik Chowdhury and Ambient Energy



The world around us is buzzing with invisible energy and information. Walk down the street and you’re bombarded with electromagnetic radiation and communication signals from cell phone towers to GPS satellites. Though we rely on conventional renewable energy like solar energy and wind to power small appliances and decrease reliance on fossil fuels, these current methods of harnessing ambient energy represent only a small fraction of the potential. How to ensure that these sources are always available indoors and outdoors--and can ensure the working of radios, phones, television, and for navigation in mobile environments--remains a challenge. Prof. Kaushik Chowdhury wants to change that. He envisions a day when cell phones charge in your pocket, getting their electricity from ambient energy while you’re walking down the sidewalk. His goal is to transform the way we harvest energy and transmit information simply by tapping these electromagnetic sources of radiation that are already readily available.

To Prof. Chowdhury, there are many possible approaches to optimize wireless energy and communications. Currently, his research focuses on three areas: first, building prototypes of sensors that can be powered through electromagnetic radiation; second, harnessing electromagnetic induction to communicate with and power biomedical implants; and third, mitigating the national problem of wireless communication spectrum scarcity through cognitive (“smart”) radio technology.

Strikingly, Chowdhury’s Robin Hood-esque approach to innovation mirrors his advice for the next generation of engineers: to access the energy already out there to galvanize your own movement.

From a young age, Prof. Chowdhury recalls feeling a pull toward the world of learning and teaching in academia. STEM fields energized him, drawing him into a life of research, even as he grew up in a family of artists. As a teenager, he was given career aptitude tests that yielded “inconclusive” results. According to Prof. Chowdhury, “They said, ‘you are either good at several things or you are a little confused!’”

Prof. Chowdhury credits his high school science teachers, especially Vidya Parvathy and Jaya Srinivasan, as influential forces who helped launch him on his way.  According to Chowdhury, the advice he received was invaluable: his mentors told him, “Look, you don’t have to not be a professor or an academic; you can always be that. And if you have a love for writing, you can write. Other intellectual pursuits? You can do them. But this can be a true vocation.”

Catalyzed by this knowledge that he needn’t find a single career to fulfill everything he was looking for, Chowdhury set out to explore available options, taking advantage of the resources available in his native Mumbai. During high school, he volunteered in various labs to gain exposure to diverse fields and learn about his own likes and dislikes, an experience much like Northeastern’s co-ops. Throughout college at the University of Mumbai, he attended all of the free lectures he could, absorbing all the different options. In 2002, while an undergraduate, Prof. Chowdhury attended a lecture given by Prof. Dharma Agrawal at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who later became Chowdhury’s master’s advisor at the University of Cincinnati.

“I was sitting in the first row and as I was listening I realized, look! This is where the 21st century is going,” Chowdhury recounts.  “Wireless and totally connected without direct physical contact. We will be enveloped more and more by technologies which we can’t see but which interact with us in very diverse way.”

Through tapping into the ambient energy -- the world of STEM academia that he had situated himself in -- Chowdhury had found a unique path in engineering research. This path would eventually take him to Georgia Tech, where he studied electrical and computer engineering with Prof. Ian Akyildiz, and ultimately to his research and teaching here at Northeastern, where he encourages students to access the information and resources that surround them.

[Last updated 07/2014 by K. Ruben]