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Doctoral student presented award for research in dielectrics

IEEE International Power Modulator and High Voltage conference chairman Richard Ness presents ECE doctoral student Kevin O’Connor. O’Connor with the Tom R. Burkes Outstanding Graduate Student Award. O’Connor was recognized for his contributions in the development of novel dielectrics for pulsed power applications. Photo provided

Kevin O’Connor, an electrical and computer engineering doctoral candidate, has been recognized for his contributions in the development of novel dielectrics for pulsed power applications. He won the Tom R. Burkes Outstanding Graduate Student Award at the IEEE International Power Modulator and High Voltage Conference in June.

A long-time Mizzou student, O’Connor graduated with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2005 and earned a master’s in 2008. O’Connor is a member of IEEE, Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi. He has been a National Physical Science Consortium fellow from 2008-2011.

In 2007, O’Connor traveled to New Mexico for a graduate internship with Sandia National Laboratories and KTech Corp. in Albuquerque. After returning to Mizzou, he transitioned to researching high dielectric constant materials for high power applications.

“After completing my master’s thesis in the field of explosive pulsed power, I was initially reluctant to become deeply involved in materials science in my PhD research,” O’Connor said. “At the time, I was uninterested in the subject matter, and, having had a limited education in materials science, I was unsure if I could improve upon existing composite materials.”

Randy Curry, Logan Distinguished Professor in electrical engineering, pushed O’Connor to continue. Curry has been O’Connor’s adviser as he has conducted his research in MU Engineering’s Center for Physical and Power Electronics, which is directed by Curry.

“He’s one of the key contributors to the center,” Curry said. “His work is going to impact the field of pulse power and high energy for the next 50 years.”

Curry nominated O’Connor for the IEEE award. The professor for whom the award is named, Tom R. Burkes, taught at Texas Tech University, where Curry received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Curry knew Burkes personally.

“He was one of the first in the field of pulse power and high energy,” Curry said.

The focus of O’Connor’s work has been on creating composite materials that combine the properties of high dielectric constants and high dielectric strengths for use in high power antennas. Such materials allow for smaller components in high-voltage systems. According to O’Connor’s research paper presented at the IEEE International Pulsed Power Conference in 2011, most of the research into composite materials has focused on low-power applications.

“After gaining an understanding of the critical issues, we developed novel approaches that produce composites with very high dielectric constants,” O’Connor said. “Part of the reason for this success was due to leveraging the unique requirements on composites for high power applications that may not have been considered by previous researchers working on low-power applications.”

For high-power antennas, the composite materials needed to have high dielectric strength and the ability to be manipulated into complex shapes.

“It’s all about how you combine the materials,” O’Connor said.

By incorporating the composite materials designed by O’Connor, the size of many types of antennas can be reduced. The materials can also be used to store energy in compact packages. He said the technology will be patented through the University and one has already been formally applied for.

O’Connor plans to stay in Columbia after he receives his doctorate to work at NanoElectromagnetics, LLC. Curry is president of the startup, which develops and manufactures high-voltage capacitors and compact antennas. Working at a small business rather than a large company has long been O’Connor’s goal.

“There’s a lot more freedom in a small business,” O’Connor said. “I like to have a little more control over what I’m working on.”