Faculty of Engineering

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Contributing to Society through the Power of the Semiconductor

In this edition of “Tell Us Teacher,” we spoke with Professor Alberto Castellazzi, who is a power semiconductors and power electronics specialist in the Department of Electrical and Mechanical Systems Engineering of the KUAS Faculty of Engineering.

Q:What kind of person were you when you were little?

When I was a boy, I used to play a lot with many friends in an apartments complex with a very big garden in the center. I remember a group of 20 or 30 children played together all the time, and I always followed my elder sister. It was quite safe in the area, and nobody kept their doors locked. We would ride bicycles and play dodgeball or soccer. So, I grew up in this big and open community.

Q:What made you begin studying science?

When I was a student at elementary school, I was more driven towards languages and different cultures. But I gradually came to study mathematics and physics at high school as I had fun building things and putting mechanical parts together. So, I decided to study physics when l went from high school to university.

Q:What did you study in University?

My initial interest at University was astrophysics. I was interested in the planets and their satellites. But it was difficult to get involved at the astrophysics laboratory because I could not go to the observatory during the night due to its remoteness from my home. Instead, I developed an interest in electronics, because at that time I played the electric guitar. I belonged to a music group, so I developed an interest in electronics. My University, in Milan, was famous for nuclear physics, and to support this research area, they had built very strong electronics laboratories. So, I started to research electronics during my undergraduate program. I got interested in this area because, when I played my guitar, I realized that electronics could control the shape of a signal, which changed the sound, and to me that was fascinating. I wanted to understand this phenomenon. In my postgraduate study, my studies ended up leaning more towards power. That is, the supply of energy, which was more interesting because I believe that power electronics utilize physics more than digital electronics.

Q:I understand that you worked in Siemens for a few years. What did you do there?

After completing graduate school, I worked for a company in Milan for a couple of years. Then, I found a good opportunity at Siemens in Germany as a doctoral researcher. I received a special three-year contract and worked in their laboratories. I learned a lot there, as they had over 8,000 researchers at their R&D center in Munich at that time. Upon completion, I got a Ph.D. from Munich University of Technology (TU Munich).

Q:Then you have taught students in Nottingham UK?

After Siemens, I decided to continue my research in an academic setting. I did one post-doc at TU Munich and one at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland. Then, I got my first junior academic position at Nottingham University in the UK, where I stayed for 11 years. Nottingham used to be known for its steel and coal industries, but when I was there the City was investing heavily into the education sector. Nowadays, it is famous for its high ratio of student inhabitants, and Nottingham University is ranked within the top 10 Engineering Faculties in the UK.

When I was at Nottingham, aside from teaching and research, I was involved in the administration of student assessments and the international office, where we tried to set up dual-degree systems and exchange programs with other universities. However, the research was the most enjoyable part for me, as I belonged to a group of academics that is now the second or third-largest lab researching power conversion. I specialized mainly in devices and device technologies. My previous focus was not so much on system design, but on system integration. I looked at new technologies and how we could make power systems more compact, more efficient, and more lightweight. One sector that increasingly involves electrical engineering is transportation. Typically, up until now, the target power range for my research was a few kilowatts, with applications typically being something like light electric vehicles. While in Europe, I was also involved in the powering of light rail systems.

Q:Why did you decide to come to Japan?

My first contact with Japan came from silicon carbide, which is a semiconductor technology that I am very interested in, while I was at Nottingham. Everybody was talking about this new material ten years ago, and it was extremely difficult to procure. There were only a few companies producing devices made by it. One of those companies was the very famous ROHM, Ltd., in Kyoto. I contacted a professor at Kyoto University and explained that I was interested in doing some research on the application of silicon carbide transistors and asked if it would be possible to spend some time in his laboratory. He kindly invited me to spend six months with him in 2011. From there, I made connections with people at ROHM and other Japanese companies. And by the time I decided to move to Kyoto, I was doing research nearly exclusively using Japanese technology. I used devices made by ROHM and Hitachi, substrates by Kyocera, and capacitors by TDK, all from Japan! So, it was very natural for me to take the next step and move to Japan when the opportunity to teach and conduct research mostly in English at KUAS. I was and still am very happy that I got this opportunity.

Q:You have encountered disasters in Japan?

The first time I came to Japan was in 2011, and I was here for the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. Many foreigners left Japan, and I was one of the few foreigners who stayed. Now we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we find ourselves in a similar situation. There are not many tourists nor foreigners, but I have a very important duty to teach and encourage the young students at our new Faculty of Engineering.

Happily, we found a solution to deliver lectures online very fast, and those lectures were very positive and produced good results. So, there was a lot to learn from this disaster.

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Q:What is your dream?

What I hope to do, and what I am working very hard on now, is to improve my Japanese and become able to interact more with the Japanese academic and industrial community in Kyoto, Osaka, Niigata and Tokyo. But clearly, my connections with these communities still need to be strengthened, and we are just beginning to collaborate on some projects, so we will see how things progress.

Also, I would like to contribute academically to my home country of Italy. For example, two students from Italy recently came to KUAS as guests, and I was able to provide them with access to Japanese technology and allow them to experience life in Kyoto. I hope to do this for other students in other European countries as well.

Q:What is your hobby?

I like to ride my motorbike. It is very pleasant to ride in Kyoto. Also, recently, I started fishing  with Professor Matsumoto in the Faculty of Engineering, Finally, my favorite hobby these days is studying the Japanese language. The only problem is finding the time to learn it. I started studying Japanese some years ago, but my ability to learn is slowing down. The structure of the Japanese language is quite different from that of European languages. But I still try to find the time for Japanese study and I believe that “practice makes perfect”.

Q:What’s your expectation to our students?

They are very shy at first. And they may not ask questions even if they do not understand something. Right now, I am teaching some courses at Kyoto University and Tokyo Metropolitan University as well. The situation there is similar, and I think it is because many students aren’t confident in their English. However, at KUAS I think our situation is a little different, at least from the second year or the second half of the first year. I have noticed that our students have become more comfortable thanks to their intensive English courses. When I meet them outside the class, they enjoy engaging in conversation. Some students come to see me and discuss motorbikes and other topics. So, I have the impression that as our program emphasizes English from the beginning, that helps make communication easier later on. In general, I have very good relations with our Japanese students. Even if communication is not always easy, our students are very clever and very careful. They listen very carefully, they think critically and they are very independent. I like that very much.

As we will welcome a big batch of international students, I think it will make the integration between our Japanese and international students easier. I have a very positive feeling that our students will develop a good relationship. Of course, everyone’s nationality different, but as I am also an international person I can understand what their needs are like in everyday life.

Learn more about Dr. Alberto Castellazzi