First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Rik W. De Doncker

IEEE Award Recipient Series: Q&As with Icons of Engineering and Technology: 2020 IEEE Medal in Power Engineering Recipient

Full Name

Rik W. De Doncker

Birth Date

06 23 1958

Place of Birth

Oudenaarde, Flanders, Belgium

Where did you grow up

Ninove, Flanders, Blegium

Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession

Father: Electro-Mechanical Engineer, Retired, Vice-director textile Company

Mother: High-school, Housewife

4 Sisters

Rita De Doncker: Medical School KULeuven, Eye Surgeon

Veronik De Doncker: (deceased) Nurse

Greet De Doncker: Dentistry KULeuven, Dentist

Kristel De Doncker: Ba Theology KUleuven, retail shop owner

What did you want to do when you grew up?

Inventing (become an inventor was my ambition when asked in Kindergarten)

What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?

Grew up in a nice, large family (5 children) in a small city (Ninove, Flanders).

Went from age 5 (Kindergarten), elementary school (age 6-12)and high-school (age 12-18) to Saint Aloysius College, Ninove, Belgium. We had a classical education (major Latin and Math, 42 hours per week in class, incl. Saturdays), lots of homework and were thought discipline, criticism and self-organization. For me the best preparation for university.

Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)

Whenever I had time, I was reading books or playing with Fischer Technik (electro-mechanical building blocks, like Lego technics). Learned a lot from my father, who had a nice workshop, all sorts of practical shores, such as installing plumbing, electrical wiring, and wood work. Later on, he inspired me with his work ethics and motivation to study engineering (rather than physics). As a young engineer he had installed a 1 MW CHP power plant in the textile company he worked for. He did that before the oil crisis of the mid-seventies, not only to save money but also to reduce emissions and safeguard the jobs of more than 400 employees. I still have the drawings of the CHP power plant he designed and operated. Interesting that after all these years we are developing decentralized small-scale CHP power plants today to minimize CO2 emissions.

Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?

Those days, we had little time for after school activities (included just one hour of sports in the 42 hour program). As I did not like soccer, I played often tennis with friends.

Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?

During vacation, I spent lots of time at the farm of my grand-parents. Taking care of animals and crop was hard work, but it was a great time, especially harvesting. The farm had a repair shop, and I spent many hours with my uncles fixing things. Time at the farm gave me a strong awareness that we are all dependent on what nature gives us and that we have to care about nature (now we call it climate).

After first year of university, I took a summer job at the industrial bakery at the place were my parents live (Ninove). Working at ovens in temperatures up to 42 degrees Celsius was strenuous. At the end of the month, I knew what labor was! I earned enough money to buy the first digital watch and the Texas Instruments programmable TI92 calculator and printer, which I used troughouht my study years (which still seems to work!).

Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips?Favorite holiday/family gathering?

My father could only take vacation towards the end of August. Several years, we all went to a small village in Switzerland, enjoying hiking and the quiet life of the alpine village.

On Newyear's day the entire family (on mother's side) would meet at the farm and Belgian waffles were baked. I could eat a lot of those!

EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?

Math and Physics, were my favorites, because of the exact way of thinking and I guess, I was pretty good at it.

Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?

French, probaby because we were in Belgium forced to take French as a second language, while I wanted English and German as second and third language.

Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?

During last month at high-school we could visit the universities. Ultimately, I selected KULeuven, for two reasons: (1) the modern looking campus on the grounds of the Arenberg Castle, just outside the city and (2) the fact that KULeuven seemed visionary, as they offered the first courses on solid state physics, nuclear science post-master program and integrated circuits (later IMEC was founded there).

Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job

  • 1981-1986 Assistant at University, lecturing and researching (PhD)
  • 1987-1988 Visiting Associate Professor at ECE Department of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA
  • 1988-1989 Research Fellow for General Electric, CRD, Schenectady, NY at the Microelectronics Center IMEC, Leuven, Belgium.
  • 1989-1994 Sr. Research Engineer and Project Manager at General Electric Corporate Research and Development Center, Power Controls Laboratory, Schenectady, NY, USA
  • 1989-1994 Adjunct Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, Department of Electric Power engineering
  • 1994 -1996 Vice President Technology (CTO) at Silicon Power Corporation (former Static Component Operation of General Electric Company), Malvern, PA, USA.
  • Since 1996 Professor and Director at the Institute of Power Electronics and Electrical Drives (ISEA) at RWTH Aachen University
  • Since 2006 Director of the E.ON Energy Research Center of RWTH Aachen University
  • Since 2014 Director of the German Fed. Gov. Research CAMPUS Flexible Electrical Networks

I liked all jobs, favorite jobs were I could combine research, management and teaching, to encourage co-workers and students to be excel as an engineer for the betterment of humanity.

Has your career turned out as you expected?

Yes. I feel I was lucky to be at the right places at the right time.

Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?

  • 2000 I became Chairman of the IEEE IAS Industrial Industrial Power Conversion Technical Committee (IPCC).
  • 2002 I became IAS Industrial Power Conversion Systems Department chair.
  • 2005 – 2006 Elected President of the Power Electronics Society of IEEE

What I learned from IEEE during these years, was how to lead meetings in structured way. I learned about US etiquette, i.e. Robert's rule of conduct (which I still apply in meetings). Having had the opportunity to lead the PELS society, IEEE gave me a global network of colleagues and friends, which I find invaluable.

You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?

I feel honored that peers have recognized my contributions. With this award, I hope that I can bring the message to next generation of engineers that power electronics is a key enabling technology for a CO2 neutral energy supply.

What other associations have helped you in your career?

ETG of VDE; the Electrotechnical Society of The German Engineering Association. I was member-of-the-board and was asked to lead a Task Force on Electric Mobility. No doubt, this gave me great visibility in Germany.

Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?

Do not ask what your institution/company can do for you, but ask what you can do for your institution/company. (sounds familiar?) I mention this every year to my first year students. I also, encourage my assistants to think about a start-up company to accelerate innovation.

Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?

Adoption of new technologies (to save the climate) by our societies (and large companies) seems often too slow to me. I contemplated several times to start a company to launch new technologies. Possibly that would have accelerated some innovations. Probably, that's why I encourage and support my assistants to start start-ups (so far five spin-offs).

Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?

I worked at GE and later at RWTH University on electrical vehicle propulsion systems. Even when German OEM car manufacturers were hooked on diesel engines, I pursued at my institute ISEA the further development of a modular propulsion systems for full-electric cars. I went on a crusade to convince OEMs that parallel hybrid cars are a diversion. I called it "a dead end street". Today, many come slowly to the same conclusion now, namely that electrical driven vehicles (with battery and possibly with a range extender) are more reliably and cost effective. I was happy to see that we got a large Fed. Gov. Project that led to the pre-development of the AUDI eTron, which is now in production).

We continued the development of low-cost switched reluctance machines (SRMs), when most researchers were developing expensive permanent magnet machines (that require rare earth materials). We worked on the acoustic noise issues of the GM car (now Chevy Bolt). I believe, that engineers can solve the disadvantages of low-cost SRMs and reduce further cost of batteries, so that EVs will ultimately cost less than combustion engine cars.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

being an inventor and mentor.

Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?

Reading history books (period 1400 till 1800), when Flanders was at the center of trade and cultural change and America was formed.

Spending vacation with my family (three sons). Especially hiking in nature parks with my wife.

My job is my hobby.

What personal achievement are you most proud of?

Next to the IEEE Newell Field Award and the PES Nari Hingorani Custom Power Award, I would say, becoming professor at the renowned Technical University, RWTH Aachen.

Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?

Of course, the Belgian waffles and apple pie recipe that was passed down from by grandmother and mom. At my family, I have the tradition that I make every Friday spaghetti.

Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?

Did not learn playing an instrument. Like "O fortuna" of Carmina Burana of Carl Orff. Of course, ABBA sounds great and brings back lots of memories.

Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.

Together with my wife, we have a large library with several thousands of books.

What are three things people may not know about you?

That I like cooking.

That I like sailing (which I learned as a child).

That I started indoor wall climbing with my sons.

Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)

my father and Prof. Don Novotny at UW, Madison.

What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?

my co-workers, personal computer and Internet.

Anything else you would like to share about yourself?