Ray Xu: Computers, converters and colliders

For the 25th anniversary of ThinkPad, we launched a digital magazine with stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Ray Xu's story that you are about to read here is one of the 14 diverse and innovative stories that we featured in the magazine. 

There’s an amateur radio club outside of Dallas, Texas that still meets every month. Calling themselves the North Texas Microwave Society (NTMS), the members trade electronic equipment and share in the nostalgia of broadcasting days gone by. For Ray Xu, 21, the NTMS was much more than a monthly assembly — it was a formative moment for a novice electrical engineer who would go on to help study and advance the very limits of physics.

When NTMS member Kent Britain gifted a box of waveguides and other radio-frequency electronics to the then 15-year-old Xu, he thought “it was probably just a box of spare parts he didn’t need.” Yet, Xu created something that caught the eye of a UT Dallas professor, and earned himself a place on the research team at the Texas Analog Center of Excellence, what he now calls his “intellectual home.” Partnering up with scholars almost twice his age while still in high school to design an integrated circuit (what many think of as computer chips), Xu isn’t shy to explain that it was something “many undergraduates, and perhaps even graduate students, don’t have the opportunity to do.”

Presently, Xu is a fourth-year double major studying physics and electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s helping to design data converters for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, located in Switzerland. Some 17 miles in diameter, the LHC is a circular super-magnet used to conduct high-energy physics experiments. At a depth between roughly 200-to-600 feet underground, the LHC’s main function is to accelerate particles close to the speed of light and test the results.

Using a data converter, which translates analog voltages from the particle detectors into code that can be read by a computer, Xu and his team are developing a chip that is instrumental in recording what goes on inside the collider. Finding himself balanced between two majors, Xu noted, “On the one hand I want to continue pursuing my passion in analog circuit design, but on the physics side, I want to study how high-energy radiation can affect circuit performance.”

As Xu explained, basic data converter chips can be bought for less than a dollar online. But in order to build something that can withstand the radiation-induced experiments of the LHC — that will take some work. His role in the group is to ensure that the prototype is radiation-hardened by the time it’s sent off for manufacturing this May. It’s a tough job, but luckily, Xu’s ThinkPad is just as rugged.

“I’ll admit I’ve accidently dropped my ThinkPad on a concrete floor once by accident, and the Thinkpad only suffered a minor scratch on the exterior,” he laughed. “The thing is indestructible, and has much better driver and hardware support compared to other brands.”

In addition to its durability, Xu says that he loves the support system for Linux and the benefits of being a part of the open-source community. Given the technical requirements of studying and researching physics and electrical engineering, his ThinkPad helps to streamline his work.

While the project he’s working on is specific to the LHC, the technology can be applied elsewhere, and Xu is intrigued by its aerospace and medical applications down the road. His long-term goals are to continue on to a PhD program and stay in the field of research. Much like the experts operating the LHC, Xu is dedicated to advancing human understanding and helping to solve some of the big, unsolved questions by applying his passion for electrical engineering into the field of physics.

From messing around with radios and microwaves to designing chips in a machine with the power to create black holes, Xu’s humble beginnings have set him on a passionate path of discovery that will not only shape his future, but perhaps even the future of physics.

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Rahil Arora leads Lenovo's Customer Stories Program.