Steven Campbell can often be found deep among tall cases of power electronics, hunkered in his oversized blue lab coat, with 1500 volts of electricity flowing above his head. When interrupted in his laboratory at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Campbell will usually smile and duck his head.
But this man in the background is the backbone of the Grid Systems Architecture Group in the Energy Science and Technology Directorate, because his technical expertise ensures the team’s vision for power electronics and system controls will function in hardware.
“No matter how good the concept, if it doesn’t work, then at the end of the day it doesn’t matter,” said Campbell, a technical professional who manages the Hybrid AC/DC and Medium Voltage labs in the Grid Research Integration and Deployment Center, or GRID-C. Campbell was heavily involved in designing GRID-C’s infrastructure, including electrical layouts and ways to mimic the residential and medium-voltage electric grid.
Campbell’s title doesn’t fully reflect his function as an electromechanical engineer and primary investigator for high-profile grid research. "Steven is ORNL's critical asset for making systems integration work in Grid-C,” said Michael Starke, acting group leader for grid systems architecture. “If there is a grid-related project with power electronics, you can bet Steven has had his hands in it."
Colleagues say they rely on Campbell to iron out technical kinks that arise when an innovative concept meets reality. Although quiet, he’s not shy about challenging tactics and pointing out gaps. Campbell has always had that confidence, even when he first started at ORNL, before earning his associate’s degree.
Growing up nearby in Oliver Springs, Tenn., with a passel of brothers, Campbell was a tinkerer, taking apart anything broken that might otherwise get thrown away. If his car broke down, he had to learn to fix it. He has put his education, his career and his houses together the same way: from scratch, on his own initiative. He was the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree, which he completed in 2018.
“I was always interested in going to college but came from a poor family,” he said. Even so, he didn’t qualify for financial assistance because he and his dad worked so much. “The choice was quit and sit on the couch to get assistance, or just try to make it work myself. So I worked overtime and started going to school at Pellissippi State, too.”
An acquaintance who worked at ORNL helped Campbell navigate enrollment hurdles and encouraged him to look for opportunities at the lab. Eventually Campbell took a technical position, offered through Oak Ridge Associated Universities, supporting ORNL research on power electronics and machinery for electric vehicles. The lab has since expanded its emphasis on partnerships with Pellissippi State, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and other educational institutions for regional workforce development, to take advantage of local talent like Campbell’s.
After five years, Campbell was hired by ORNL directly to focus on packaging and characterizing semiconductors for maximizing the power density of power electronics in electric vehicles. By the time he began studying for his bachelor’s degree at UT, he was tackling EV wireless charging power transfer controls.
“I still hadn’t had any controls classes,” he said. That didn’t stop him from helping develop a wireless electric and plug-in vehicle charging system that won an R&D 100 Award in 2016. “Multiple times, I learned something in school after I had already been applying it,” said Campbell. “I’d be sitting in a classroom, and some guy next to me would say, ‘Where is this ever going to be used?’ I could say, ‘Well, I’m using it for this.’”
Campbell has received more than a dozen awards for his research, many while he was still in school, including two DOE Vehicle Technologies Office Distinguished Achievement Awards. Among his other notable achievements was the first 20-kilowatt vehicle charging system with over 90% efficiency.
One of Campbell’s signature contributions to high-profile projects is his ability to make the various research components work together. For example, multiple teams were developing different technologies for the Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy project, or AMIE, which demonstrated that a house and car could power each other. “A lot of the complexities come into the details of how all the systems need to handshake with one another to work,” said Campbell, who was key to that integration.
He now signs off on technical aspects of design before research proposals are submitted. He is a leader in research areas like embedded controls and software integration, where he guides younger staff, said Madhu Chinthavali, section head for Energy Systems Integration and Controls.
Currently, Campbell is developing both software and hardware for managing cleaner energy sources when they are distributed through the grid. His work reduces the complexity and potential points of failure, as well as the need to manually configure electrical system controls.
“A utility doesn’t want to be managing hundreds or thousands of different pieces of equipment,” Campbell said. “Now we’re tying them together as a single, bigger system, which has a higher chance of being adopted in the industry. That’s pretty exciting.”
Campbell doesn’t stop designing and tinkering when he clocks out. After past projects building a barn and renovating a home, he is now building his family a new house from the ground up on a big tract of land near Kingston, Tenn. There, he can hunt, grow hay, raise goats and let his young son explore and tinker, too.