Northeastern’s Ali Abur appointed to National Academy of Engineering—the ‘highest honor an engineer can receive’

headshot of ali abur
Northeastern professor of electrical and computer engineering Ali Abur has been elected to the distinguished National Academy of Engineering. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Ali Abur, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at Northeastern University, has been appointed to the National Academy of Engineering, joining a select group of distinguished engineers in academia and industry who make up the academy’s class of 2023.

Members elected to the prestigious panel are recognized for their “outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature.”

The NAE also honors individuals for pioneering “new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education,” according to the academy.

For Abur, the recognition is the highest honor an engineer can receive.

“This is the pinnacle of engineering,” Abur says. “It is very rewarding to see your lifelong work being recognized by your peers.”

Abur, who also directs the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks, a federally funded engineering research center that is partnered with Northeastern, has spent his career working on methods for identifying faults in the U.S. power system. Faults are potentially damaging abnormalities affecting voltages and currents.

David Madigan, Northeastern provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said election to the National Academy of Engineering represents the pinnacle of academic achievement in engineering.

“I am just thrilled for Professor Abur,” Madigan says. “His pioneering work on critical power systems exemplifies the kind of impact that Northeastern is all about. We are very fortunate and honored to have Professor Abur as a colleague.”

Gregory D. Abowd, dean of Northeastern’s College of Engineering, says the appointment is the “ultimate recognition” by one’s peers.

“Dr. Abur’s accomplishments speak for themselves, and we are so proud to share in this richly deserved honor,” Abowd says. “He is now the second member of our faculty elected in the last two years, a sign that Northeastern is beginning to get the recognition for its research preeminence that it deserves.”

The National Academy of Engineering is part of a cohort of related nonprofits that together makeup the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In what’s become a highly selective and closed process, the academy chooses among a pool of the world’s top engineers to appoint its members, who go on to help author reports on some of the major industry challenges, while educating the next generation of engineers. 

Jerome Hajjar, department chair and CDM Smith Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern, was also elected to the national organization in 2022.

Using federal funding and in collaboration with various utility companies, Abur and his colleagues have patented methods for improving fault detection in U.S. grid control centers. One such method, which received support from New England Independent System Operator, has automated fault detection through a software program that Abur says has been 10 years in the making. 

He says the method, which was adopted by the New England ISO several years ago, identifies and self-corrects database errors before they lead to bigger problems.

“This is just one of the ways that we’ve made an impact on the industry,” he says.

The U.S. power system is a sprawling, interconnected network made up of thousands of miles of transmission and distribution cables, generators, substations, wind turbines, solar generation sites and various types of power plants.

Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, are typically located far from areas of high demand for electricity, Abur says. Increasing volume of renewable energy production thus creates a problem: transmitting electricity from those sources to the customers over long distances using the nation’s massive power grid.

The efficient and reliable transmission of electric power using the existing system therefore requires changes to the way the grid is monitored under normal operating conditions—and during unexpected disturbances, such as lightning strikes or device failures.

That’s where Abur’s work comes in.

“All these changes are creating challenges to monitoring, because it’s not that easy to monitor this entire system and control it from a single point,” Abur says. “There are all these control centers that are coordinated within the system.”

Electricity produced and moved about the system is a vitally important resource. That’s why system reliability is a real sticking point for the industry, Abur says. In order to make the system work—and it has to, 24-7—it needs to be “99.999% reliable,” he says.

Abur joined Northeastern in November of 2005, serving as chair of the electrical and computer engineering department until 2013. Before Northeastern, Abur was a professor at Texas A&M University, where he’d spent 20 years.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter@tstening90.