Ajith Kumar

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A brief biography

As in 2022

Sujit John, Sep 28, 2022: The Times of India

In August, Ajith Kumar surpassed legendary American inventor George Westinghouse in the number of patents held. 362 vs Westinghouse’s 361. Westinghouse, who died in 1914, invented the air brake system that made railroads safer and transformed the US rail industry. His Westinghouse Air Brake Company is the origin of today’s locomotive giant Wabtec, where Kumar is now vice president of technology-innovation.

Earlier this month, the company celebrated Kumar’s achievement at its Pittsburgh headquarters.

Kumar’s innovations mostly came as part of GE Transportation, which Wabtec acquired three years ago. We had a nearly hour-long virtual conversation with Kumar, who spoke from his home in Washington DC, during which he noted that there are still three others from the GE/Westinghouse pantheon with more patents than him – Thomas Edison, Elihu Thomson (whose companies went on to create today’s Alstom), and Clyde Farmer.

Farmer has 513 patents. Surpassing that will take some doing. But at nearly 71, Kumar is going strong, and he talks about drones and virtual reality and batteryelectric technologies with the passion of a 20-year-old. 
Kumar grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. His father was a professor of mathematics, hismother a headmistress in a high school. In the 1950s in Kerala, only the city municipal corporations had an age rule for admission. Outside the corporation, schools would just test the child and place them in the most appropriate class.

Kumar’s parents took him outside the municipality, and the school placed him in the third grade. “So I skipped class 1 and 2,” he says, laughing. And then it was easy to later take a transfer to a corporation school, which Kumar did. But universities had an age rule, so Kumar had to do one year of BSc in physics, before he could join the College of Engineering in Thiruvananthapuram for a BTech in electrical engineering. He graduated in 1972 with a record grade, and joined Syndicate Bank in Manipal as a technical officer. Within three months he quit to become one of the first employees of Keltron, the Kerala government’s electronics corporation. He was there for three years, during which a major project involved building the standby power supply for the Kalpakkam Atomic Power Station, including a battery charger.

All through this period, Kumar had fervently wanted to go to the US to study. But he could not pay for it. And then, in 1976, he got a scholarship from the Rotary Club of Thiruvananthapuram. The club would give one scholarship a year, and thatpaid for transportation, and one year’s tuition and boarding. That got him to Stanford for a Master’s in electrical engineering.

Kumar wasn’t sure how he would pay for his second year, so he finished all the required credits and projects in less than a year. Way before any of his classmates. “I had hoped to pocket the firstyear final semester’s fees by finishing before that, but the university said I cannot graduate before a full year, and that I had to pay the final semester’s fees,” Kumar says with a laugh.

Kumar’s mind was set on working on projects that involved large power electronics systems. Soon after his Master’s, he wroteto GE, and they gave him a job. “And I stuck there,” he says. 
Kumar’s seminal contributions have come in three areas. He introduced alternating current (AC) technology to the then direct current (DC) traction motor systems. Today, all locomotives in the US use AC technology. Wabtec calls Kumar the Father of the AC locomotive’.

The space between the locomotive wheels, Kumar says, is the most premium, because the distance between the rails is fixed. The traction motor sits in that space. Kumar’s use of electronics and AC enabled him to move the rotary switch, called commutator, higher up in the locomotive, allowing him to put more torque between the wheels. This in turn enabled the massive hauling applications of US locomotives. 
His second big accomplishment is what is called the trip optimiser. It’s like cruise control for trains.

Kumar used his knowledge of physics and train dynamics to programme a system that looks at tonnage, route profile and speed limits to ensure the most optimal dynamic braking. “It led to about 10% fuel efficiency. I hear that half a billion gallons of fuel have been saved so far,” Kumar says.

The third major accomplishment is an ongoing one – the invention of battery systems for a new era of battery-powered locomotives. The attempt is to make batteries economically viable for locomotives by increasing durability, and enabling them to capture more of the energy from braking to charge themselves. 
“All such innovations take time. AC took 10-12 years, trip optimiser took 7-8 years,” says Kumar.

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