Arvind Srinivasan


After years in the lab exploring heat transfer on the nanoscale, doctoral candidate Arvind Srinivasan MS’16 found himself in rural Uganda thinking very differently about energy.

In the remote village of Otubet, where he and others from Columbia’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders were stationed in May 2017, residents had no access to an electrical grid. The team made the 30-hour journey from New York to spend two weeks working with the community to implement an innovative pay-as-you-go solar microgrid system designed by Professor Vijay Modi.

“Witnessing real problems on the ground that people face every day was eye-opening, and a huge bonus to my experience as a PhD student,” Srinivasan said. “It helped us develop a self-sustaining financial model for the community so the microgrid would have a long lifespan.”

While there, Srinivasan conducted feasibility and assessment studies, and still serves as an advisor to the team. His involvement catalyzed a determination to bring his formidable technical expertise to bear on engineering for humanity, from building hyperlocal infrastructure in low-resource settings to solving global challenges of sustainable energy.

At Columbia, he joined Professor Arvind Narayanaswamy’s lab in fall 2014. As part of that team, he investigates quantum thermal transport in nanowires and other nanostructures—an area that incorporates nanofabrication techniques, materials science, applied physics, and mechanical engineering, with expansive implications for the future of energy and electronics. And, it requires rigorous precision in the university’s state-of-the-art clean room.

“For final experiments to work, we have to fabricate nanostructures in the clean room, create a certain fabrication process for nanowire synthesis, and build an optical setup,” Srinivasan said. “Only a few other research groups have previously been able to show quantum thermal transport, and under different experimental conditions.”

Inspired by his work in Uganda, he’s also been exploring an area with more direct implications for sustainability: technologies that leverage natural passive radiative cooling to reduce the urban heat island effect and cool spaces without the use of emissions-intensive air conditioning.

“Simpler and more innovative solutions people have adopted in the past, before modern technology, were more efficient and had smaller carbon footprints,” says the Mumbai-born, Zurich-educated mechanical engineer. “As an engineer, I think bringing back some of these older, seemingly less-fashionable solutions could help our efforts to create a sustainable future.”

He is currently working on developing polymer-based coatings for buildings’ outer layers to enhance radiative cooling. A polymer known as PDMS has shown great promise, reducing indoor temperatures up to five degrees Celsius during daylight hours, and Srinivasan is investigating how such substances perform over the course of extensive exposure to the elements.

Srinivasan has also become a leader beyond his fields of study: during his first year on campus, he co-founded the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Association, which he soon stepped up to head, and got involved with the Engineering Graduate Student Council, for which he later became president, aiming to enhance quality of life and better connect the graduate student body. In addition to serving as a teaching assistant for Professors Modi and Jeffrey Kysar, he earned the Lead Teaching Fellowship, working with the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning to identify and address pedagogical needs.

Srinivasan expects to complete his PhD in the fall semester and embark on a career at a startup or in R&D at a small company bringing efficient multidisciplinary energy solutions to market.

“Before coming to Columbia, most of my friends and colleagues were in engineering fields,” he said. “Even though I’m an engineer here, my network has grown and I’m now connected with people from all disciplines and backgrounds.”

Student Spotlight

Witnessing real problems on the ground that people face every day was eye-opening, and a huge bonus to my experience as a PhD student.

Arvind Srinivasan