Engineering professor to improve electronics by thinking thermal first

Erin Cassidy Hendrick
September 13, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new assistant professor in mechanical engineering, Brian Foley, found his way to the field through electrical engineering.

“After earning my bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering, I worked at a company that made high frequency diodes,” Foley said. “While I was there, we would see failures that we attributed to thermal issues within the semiconductor devices.”

Frustrated with these issues, he wanted to solve them long-term by understanding the root cause.

“So I decided I needed to learn about them,” he said. Foley went on to earn his doctorate from the University of Virginia in mechanical engineering, studying nanoscale thermal transport with Patrick Hopkins, followed by a post-doc at the Georgia Institute of Technology with Samuel Graham.

“So I’m a hybrid of electrical and mechanical,” he explained. “With my experience, I’m trying to understand engineering issues from different angles.”

Using his unique perspective, Foley plans to innovate the way electronics are designed.

“When electrical components are in the design phase early in the process, thermal issues are rarely considered or understood,” he said. But Foley believes using the Band-Aid approach to address heating and cooling issues in electronics with bigger fans and heatsinks doesn’t make much sense.

“I’m hoping to feed perspectives of thermal engineering to electrical engineers that are designing devices, incorporating thermal improvements at the junction to die-level,” he said. “Improved thermal performance will impact every sector, from consumer electronics, to high-performance computing, to military technology.”

Foley also plans to explore multi-carrier transport processes on the nanoscale. Essentially, he plans to examine how quasi-particles like electrons, holes and phonons interact with one another as they move within matter.

“By learning about how they fundamentally interact while moving through solids and liquids, as well as across interfaces, we’re going to help make those things lighter, faster and better,” he explained.

Originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, Foley is also bringing his passion for music to the department. In graduate school working as a DJ, Foley went by the stage name DJ Derivative. “It resonated with the engineering crowds,” he said with a laugh.

In his free time, Foley can be found spending time with his son, Owen, and his wife, Caitlin. He also plans to volunteer with the Pennsylvania Special Olympics.

Reflecting on his faculty appointment, he said, “When the opportunity came to join Penn State, it was a no brainer. The reputation, the students, the breadth and depth of the research, it was all there. Penn State is a great place to be.”

Last Updated September 13, 2018