Flexibility, passion unite ABB’s Solar Impulse engineers

ABB engineers Stevan Marinkovic, Nicolas Loretan and Tamara Tursijan with Solar Impulse co-pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard

Three ABB engineers on loan to Solar Impulse are part of a new generation of young, passionate experts helping to run the world without consuming the earth.

The call came on a Wednesday, late in 2014: Engineer wanted.

Two days later, ABB research scientist Stevan Marinkovic was the newest member of the Solar Impulse team sending a solar-powered airplane around the earth without fossil fuel. The next Monday, he was already working alongside Solar Impulse’s engineers, where his main responsibility, so far, has been the plane’s charging electronics and monitoring for the cockpit battery – to make sure it’s always topped off.

Marinkovic’s lightning-quick shift of duties in Switzerland, where he’s part of the integrated sensors systems group, matched experiences of Tamara Tursijan, a field service engineer for medium-voltage drives, and Nicolas Loretan, an engineer from ABB’s traction converters factory in Turgi.

The three now help embody the innovation and technology alliance ABB has forged with Solar Impulse: ABB’s aim of boosting efficiency, trimming resource use and creating a sustainable planet matches perfectly Solar Impulse’s goal of highlighting renewable energy’s growing promise.

‘Anyway I can’

“If there’s a plane carrying this message – that we should dedicate our minds to making energy simpler, more reasonable and its consumption lighter and more efficient – I would help it fly, anyway I can,” said Marinkovic, originally from Serbia.

Solar Impulse began in 2003, when it was founded by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, one of the first balloonists to circle the earth, and Swiss businessman André Borschberg. They’ve since piloted a prototype, Solar Impulse 1, across three continents, through day and night, setting one international record after another.

Starting in late February or early March, Piccard and Borschberg will share duties behind the rudder of the larger, 2,300-kilogram Solar Impulse 2 for its journey starting and finishing in Abu Dhabi. It will take them across two oceans, to a dozen cities, covering some 40,000 kilometers.

ABB joined in April as an extension of its credo: “Power and productivity for a better world.” For its three engineers, it was a chance to bring their unique technical skills that help make this motto a reality for customers to an endeavor aiming to cement in the minds of millions that the future of renewables has arrived.

‘Once in a lifetime’

“I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Tursijan, also from Serbia, with a master’s degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Tursijan is a field service engineer who travels the world to where ABB drives are installed – ideal preparation for the fast-paced culture of Solar Impulse.“My job is to travel to various sites and do commissioning, preventative maintenance and software updates,” she said. “My life is in the air.”For Solar Impulse, she’s buttressed the control system of its balloon-like mobile hangar – for unscheduled landings or if a local airport can’t host the plane – with ABB relays and breakers to make it more reliable. Time constraints mean she’s had to improvise, using materials immediately at hand to solve emerging challenges.“But I think the real ‘MacGyver Experience’ is coming during the round-the-world flight,” she said.

Tamara reveals more about her work with the Solar Impulse team in the video below..

A quick study

Since relocating to Solar Impulse’s base in Payerne, Switzerland, Dec. 1, Loretan says the pace has been fast, with the take-off date approaching more rapidly than a speeding train outfitted with traction converters he usually spends his days helping improve.

“Yet the airplane’s requirements are much different than the ones used typically in traction,” said Loretan, part of Solar Impulse’s electrical and propulsion team. “I needed to get to understand the system quite quickly.”

So far, he’s contributed by helping update maximum power point tracking devices, or MPPT, that reap maximum power regardless of atmospheric conditions from the collection of 17,248 razor-thin solar cells that form a solar skin over the plane’s wings.

Solar Impulse’s eight MPPT devices are critical, since failure of just one during the five-day, non-stop odyssey between China and Hawaii, the mission’s longest leg, could make it impossible to charge batteries enough during daylight while driving motors sufficiently to reach maximum altitude.

“The clearance distance on an MPPT part wasn’t sufficient,” Loretan said. Based on his suggestion, it was increased to a safer value.

‘On the fly’

Such work requires resourcefulness to solve small problems that emerge each day “on the fly.” It’s expertise cultivated by years of training and the passion to unravel the mysteries of the electronic world – and then re-invent it, so it works better.

Tursijan got her start in solar energy at Belgrade University, helping develop an award-winning public solar phone charging system installed in several Serbian cities.

Loretan, from Switzerland, was about 10 when he began soldering components together for a door alarm. “After high school, I thought it was time to learn how to use electricity and electronics to make things move,” he recalls.

Marinkovic, too, wasn’t yet a teenager when he began copying Basic programs on an old Atari 8-bit computer, the beginnings of the zeal for software and hardware he’s since brought to ABB – and now the lofty new terrain of Solar Impulse.

“One thing that is different is the timeline of the decisions,” he said. “Decisions must be taken faster, and they carry the responsibility that comes with that.”

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About the author

John-Philip Miller

I’m the senior editor in ABB’s group corporate communications team, in Zurich. For most of my career I’ve been a reporter, at Bloomberg News in Zurich and then for the last 10 years at The Associated Press in Idaho.
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