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Amith, a genius ahead of his time

By Tharaka Gamage
“Leisure is spent mainly on wildlife and nature photography. In addition, travelling (hiking and camping), astronomy, supernatural activity and the like, keep me awake. Formal education is in an engineering background. Specialised in electronics and telecommunication engineering. Work done in novel semiconductors (amorphous carbon) led to a Ph.D. Teach university students, for a living.”


He was a ‘professor’ even in school, since his classmates in Grade 7-8 called him “Prof”, because of his amazing talent and exceptional knowledge beyond his years.
Amith Munindradasa, born July 3, 1966 in Panadura, completed his primary education at Panadura Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya and entered Royal College, Colombo, following his success at the Grade 5 Scholarship exam.
Surprising his friends at school, he rigged a fluorescent light without wires attached. He magnetized things with a coil wound around a bolt. He has had that ‘electronic fever’ as a kid.
“Even before I attended school, I would mess around in my uncle’s workshop. He never discouraged me, though frequently, I broke his valuable instruments as a result of my experiments. Instead, he encouraged me. It influenced me,” said Amith, while chatting with me a few years ago.

He never crammed his studies, instead, he assimilated, in depth, whatever that was imparted to him. Though he topped the batch in his third year of engineering at Moratuwa University, he only had a few papers as lecture notes.
In his second year, he came to know of a breakdown of an automated production line at a large-scale garment factory for which a team of foreign experts were to be flown in to repair it, since nobody in Sri Lanka could repair it. However, Amith spent only a weekend on the ‘job’ and got it into operation. The company saved millions, though he claimed nothing.

His ‘professorship’ was changed to ‘prof-mahayana’ during his undergraduate days, for his insistence on traveling in State buses, referred to as ‘mahayana” (big vehicle), instead of the private coaches operating between Moratuwa campus and Katubedda, because they were small and uncomfortable to travel in.
He was a senior member of the Astronomy and Space Study Centre of Piliyandala. Until recently, virtually, every Saturday night, he spent scanning the sky with friends of the club. He would grind mirrors and make telescopes and allied accessories. I remember once, he repaired Sir Arthur C. Clark’s private telescope as well.
As a First Class B.Sc. Eng. Hon., of the University of Moratuwa, he lectured there for two years. He then joined the University of Liverpool, UK, on a scholarship and did his Ph.D. under the tutelage of Prof. G.A.J. Amarathunge. As a keen student of semiconductors, since a schoolboy, Amith explored the possibilities of using amorphous carbon as a semiconductor for thin-films.

For these researches, he had to make thin-films and observe the optical and electronic properties of those films. Deposition of a thin-film is not an easy task. The conventional method of depositing a thin-film was called the chathodic arc system, which was a tedious process. Amith researched for a new efficient process. His dedication and commitment led to the discovery of the “Helicon Wave System’.

In his discovery, he reported a novel method to generate nitrogen plasma and his comparison of ‘helicon wave generated plasma’ with the conventional inductively coupled ‘RF plasma’. Nitrogen plasma is commonly generated by passing a current through a gas column, especially for nitrogen laser applications. The optical cavity poisoning due to electrode evaporation and the excessive heat dissipation onto the vacuum tube wall, by diffused plasma, can lead to an unstable system. An electrode free, confined plasma system can improve the performance of such a system. Helicon wave excitation allowed the selective energy transfer into plasma species via Landau damping.
As a result of his research, he was able to study a field emission of thin-films. The particular property of the field emission is that it emits a light when an electric current is supplied. Field-emission displays contain materials that emit electrons, when charged to a low (negative) potential; the electrons excite light emission from phosphor screens. These devices have the potential to provide flat-panel visual displays with good picture quality at low power consumption and low cost. Field-emission devices at that time used arrays of micro fabricated tips as the emitting cathodes but, Amith showed that a potentially cheaper and simpler alternative was to use a thin-film cathode.

The results he obtained on thin-films could apply for many kinds of productions. His carbon films have been used by a company in the UK, as an excellent passivation protective layer for their power devices, under conditions where their own layers were unable to protect their devices.
In the latter part of his Ph.D. studies, he had to move from Liverpool to Cambridge, as his supervisor moved. All the instruments removed from the Liverpool laboratory, had to be re-assembled in Cambridge. This was done by Amith.
He forsook international prestige and huge financial benefits to serve his nation. So he returned.
Though there were no facilities to deposit thin-films here, he brought a spectro photometer, used to measure optical properties of thin-films, worth a millions of rupees, to Sri Lanka and donated it to the University of Moratuwa. Optical properties of any thin-film can be observed through this instrument. Yet, it is useless, without a film deposition system.

He worked as a senior lecturer in the Department of Electronic & Telecommunication Engineering, University of Moratuwa. He was the head of the Department from 2003-2006. Not limiting himself to delivering lectures, for years he conducted an environmental workshop at Sinharaja, for engineering students. As Consultant to students’ projects, he supervised both final and postgraduate research projects.
Once he designed a soft mortar, suitable for a lightweight electric vehicle. That was a new design for 5-phase, in-wheel, axial flux, double outer rotor, single double-side inner rotor, permanent magnet motor architecture, which offers better torque and power characteristics and matches the orientation of the general motor wheel, such that, it can be directly mounted in-wheel. It mainly concerns the torque and power characteristics, with the modeled speed variations of the electric vehicles. Also, its increased overall efficiency, when used with the electric vehicle, without the usage of drive chain, is addressed.

He launched an another project to design and develop a low cost voltage regulator for micro-scale hydroelectricity generators, for rural areas, where national grid electricity is not available. Most rural areas depend on micro-scale hydroelectricity generators for electricity, because of its low cost and availability. A major problem in this form of power supply, is the lack of control of the power and voltage of these generators.
Most of them use simple voltage regulators based on fixed dummy loads, which could be selected under house loading conditions. These regulators are inefficient. Most of the time they cannot supply sufficient voltage or power to operate high power household appliances. As solution he developed a PIC micro-controller based voltage regulator that could dynamically adjust the power supplied to the house and maximum power when required. The remaining power is used for water heating processes. His team successfullytested this technique with a 2KW synchronize induction generator, supplying power to a medium-size house, under various loading and unloading conditions of the household appliances such as TV, smoothing iron and washing machine.

Dr. Munindradasa was an ardent wildlife enthusiast. He served society as well as the fauna and flora. He designed a collar for elephants, instead of the conventional electric fence around villages. Joining with the Smithsonian Institute of America, he planted a chip with a GPS, to the elephant collar, which helps to track the path of elephants. A map of the boundary for the elephant was also installed in the chip. When the elephant crosses its boundary and enters an area beyond its limits, it receives a strong electric pulse generated from the collar, as a warning. When this happens frequently, Amith believed that the elephants would avoid those areas and limit itself to its own habitats.
He took to photography as a hobby, as a student and ended up by introducing a Photography course for engineering students, linking technology and arts for the first time in history. No doubt, he was the top expert of still camera technology in Sri Lanka.

He was an expert in many fields. Other than his passion for semiconductors, wildlife related electronics and mechatronics, automotive electronics and acoustics were among his other interests.
Recently he expanded his scope to a completely a different field. Working with Mr. Mendis Wickramasinghe, he described five new species of geckos from Sri Lanka. Amith revived the genus Cnemaspis in the country, by morphological comparison and morphometric analysis. New species were named C.alwisi and C.kumarasinghei, from the intermediate zone, C.retigalensis from the dry zone, C. molligodai from the lowland wet zone and C.samanalensis from the mountain region of the wet zone. This paper was published in ZOOTAXA volume 1490 – a prestigious international journal.

He also designed a system to filter the acoustic data of frogs. In addition to these researches, recently he was involved in the field of nanotechnology. He tried to gather Sri Lankan experts working in that field overseas, to build a national nanotechnology centre.
Unfortunately, he died on June 12, in a hospital in Tel Aviv, following an attack of pneumonia, during an official mission. At the time of his death, he was a consultant to the MoD of Sri Lanka. Researches he conducted in the field of defense, are invaluable. His death is a great loss to the nation.

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