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Photo of flexible electronic components
August 21, 2020

Focus on new faculty: For Umit Ogras, the future is flexible

Written By: Jason Daley

Umit Ogras is not a science fiction writer, but he presents a compelling vision of the future: There will soon be smartphones that look like tattoos or stickers, brain-machine interfaces that aid people with movement disorders, and devices that harvest energy built into our clothes.

 Umit Ogras
Umit Ogras

Ogras, who began as an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UW-Madison in August 2020, hopes he can make many parts of that vision a reality in Wisconsin.

Before coming to Madison, Ogras received his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University, studying systems on a chip, in which an entire computer system is integrated into one platform, a concept that is currently used in devices like smartphones. He then moved into industry, working at Intel, where he helped develop the company’s SkyLake processor microarchitecture, used in many commercial servers.

That experience, he says, was a huge asset when he decided to move into academia, joining Arizona State University in 2013. “It’s very important to work on real products and understand the requirements and practical aspects,” he says. “Without a practical background, we can make invalid assumptions.”

In the lab, Ogras began thinking about the evolution of electronics. “As a user myself, I don’t like carrying around a smartphone,” he says. “If you look at history, every 10 to 15 years there’s a big change in form factor. We went from room-sized computers to the desktop. From that to the laptop and from there to the phone. We can’t assume this is the end of it,” he says. “Maybe they will become part of our glasses or disappear into our clothes.”

To make that a reality, Ogras has focused on hybrid flexible electronics, or what he likes to call systems on polymer, which combine electronic components into one thin, flexible device.

One potential application for these systems is to help people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s. Ogras says surveys have found these patients want to use smartphones and other devices for monitoring and rehabilitation, but they have difficulty with everyday tasks like recharging the phone.

That got him interested in alternative ways to power these devices and led him to study novel types of energy harvesting. His current research includes analytical models for flexible photovoltaic cells that collect ambient solar energy. He’s also built devices that derive energy from human motion using flexible textiles. In addition, these devices can monitor a patient’s gait, detecting limps or other issues.

So far, his work has led to many accolades, including a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and a DARPA Young Faculty Award.

Besides collaborating with colleagues in the College of Engineering who are working on flexible electronics, energy harvesting and biomedical applications, Ogras says he also hopes to collaborate with researchers in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. It’s important, he says, that his research makes a real impact in the world.

Although he’s moving halfway across the country during a pandemic, Ogras isn’t planning for any slowdown in his research. All seven PhD students in his lab have transferred to UW-Madison as well. “I’m very excited. Because of that we won’t have any gaps and won’t have to restart the group,” he says. “The culture of the lab will continue, and I’m looking forward to hiring more students.”