As a kid, Habilou Ouro-Koura liked to break stuff.

When his father, a mechanic, broke his motorbike, Ouro-Koura studied how he fixed it. When that no longer sated his curiosity, he tore open electronic toys to see how they flashed or sang. Using other broken bits, like milk cans, he built his own miniature cars and then crashed them against his friends’ milk-can creations.

“Since then, I dreamt of becoming an engineer, of making things better, helping people, and not only understanding how electronics work but how to make them myself,” said Ouro-Koura, who grew up in Togo, a French-speaking country in West Africa.

Habilou Ouro-Koura sitting on a rock next to a lake surrounded by mountains.

Ouro-Koura, who grew up in French-speaking Togo, overcame cultural and language barriers to pursue his dream of becoming the kind of engineer who builds technologies to help people and improve their lives.

Photo from Habilou Ouro-Koura

Now a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, Ouro-Koura is already well on his way to making that childhood dream a reality. One of three fellows selected as part of the 2022 Marine Energy Graduate Student Research Program (funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office [WPTO]), Ouro-Koura is once again working with miniature vehicles—except, now, those vehicles can swim.

Working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the young engineer is focused on finding a reliable and clean energy source to power the uncrewed underwater vehicles used in ocean research, defense, and other sectors. Such vehicles could dock and charge at stations that generate electricity from ocean thermal energy. While ocean thermal technologies are still in the early stages of development, Ouro-Koura hopes to make them more efficient and cost-effective so they can power next-generation vehicles.

“If we use a readily available energy source, like ocean thermal energy, we can blend the system into the environment and reduce its impact,” said Ouro-Koura.

Ouro-Koura told us how he overcame obstacles to pursue engineering and why he’s optimistic about renewable energy’s future.

Did you face any obstacles on your way to becoming an engineer?

There were many obstacles. Growing up in Africa, I saw the poverty. Many people, me included, didn’t have access to many educational or career opportunities. It was really hard to follow your childhood dreams. At some point, I thought, “Am I going to make it or not?” But then I had an opportunity to come to the United States, and I attended Montgomery College and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore as an undergraduate student.

Habilou Ouro-Koura standing at a lab bench, which is covered with electronics and papers

Habilou Ouro-Koura is one of three fellows selected as part of the 2022 Marine Energy Graduate Student Research Program, which is funded by WPTO.

Photo from Habilou Ouro-Koura

Was that challenging—coming to an entirely new country?

There were cultural and language barriers. The educational system was completely different. Then, for graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I moved from Maryland to New York and had to build everything back up again. Getting out of my comfort zone has always been an obstacle. But I was lucky enough to meet the right people at the right time, people who pushed me and believed in me and gave me all these opportunities. It’s really important to find the right mentors, the people who will try to take you where you want to be.

Was there one mentor, in particular, who helped you get where you are today?

As an undergraduate, I was lucky to be part of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, which immerses students in research to see what graduate life is like. I never imagined I’d be in graduate school. But I met this professor, Tracy Bell, and she talked about growing up in Georgia and coming to Washington, D.C., to do her postdoctoral research; she had all these stories. Sometimes, you think something is happening only to you and that you alone have been through it. But listening to Professor Bell, I thought, “I can do it as well.”

Many other mentors have helped me, too, like Kausik S. Das. I worked with him on a photolithography technique, which is used to make microchips for phones and microtechnology—sensors, microchannels for microfluidics, and many other projects. I ended up being a coauthor on two papers and a first author on another publication.

Your graduate advisor has been another key mentor, right?

Yes, Diana Borca-Tasciuc has been an excellent mentor for me, both personally and professionally. With her oversight and mentoring, I recently published a paper that will pave the way to defining a fundamental energy conversion limit for electrostatic energy harvesters.

During your fellowship, you’ll be working on ocean thermal energy. What is that? And why should people care about it?

Ocean thermal energy is a form of marine energy, a fast-growing form of renewable energy that creates power from temperature differences in the ocean. The ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and is a plentiful energy source that can power coastal areas. It’s hard to send power lines all the way to some coastal areas and islands. If we can tap into ocean energy that’s right across from their houses, we can use that energy to sustainably power activities and increase the amount of renewable energy available in everyday life.

What problems are you trying to solve within ocean thermal energy?

I’m working on figuring out how to use ocean thermal energy to power uncrewed underwater vehicles, specifically, how to optimize technologies that tap into the ocean’s thermal gradients. Ocean thermal energy is less prevalent than tidal energy, wave energy, or ocean salinity. But one of the major advantages is that it’s reliable. Wave energy can depend on the seasons. Say there’s a hurricane; the waves can be really unpredictable. But ocean thermal energy is really, really, really reliable. Let’s say you are in the tropics. The average temperature of the ocean’s surface water is mostly constant; it doesn’t depend on day or night. And once you go below the water’s surface, the temperature there is also constant.

So, it’s very reliable. Are there any downsides?

Yes. Compared to other types of marine energy, ocean thermal energy conversion technologies have a low efficiency; so far, these devices can only convert a small percentage of the available energy into usable power. In some areas, the temperature difference is not as high as it is in the tropics where the surface waters can be 25 degrees and bottom waters 4 degrees. So, that’s what I’m looking into right now—improving the efficiency of those thermal gradient energy harvesters so they can become more cost-effective.

What excites you most about marine energy or water power more generally?

I worked at the Conowingo Dam’s hydropower facility in Maryland as an intern in 2017. And I would just quote my mentor, who said that working at the dam is like working in a park. You’re in nature, working on a lake, with water and clean energy. Since then, I’ve really liked working with water power technologies. Water is one of the most important resources on the planet; it’s also one of the most abundant energy sources. But we need to find more efficient ways to harvest that power because good, sustainable use of water is really important. And marine energy can be a good way to tackle global warming and climate change.

Have you come across any myths or misconceptions about renewable energy?

One of the most common misconceptions is that renewable energy is not reliable. But in some ways, renewable energy is one of the most reliable forms of energy because its resources won’t run out. Some people may think, “I can’t wait for the wind or the sun to come out to get my energy.” But there are plenty of renewable energy sources around us. It doesn’t have to be daytime or windy. Ocean thermal energy is available constantly. So are hydropower and other types of marine energy.

Habilou Ouro-Koura wearing a life jacket as he floats on an inflatable tube in a river

“Water is one of the most important resources on the planet; it’s also one of the most abundant energy sources,” said Habilou Ouro-Koura, one of three graduate students to earn a 2022 Marine Energy Graduate Student Research Program fellowship. Ouro-Koura will spend his fellowship studying how to make ocean thermal energy technologies more efficient and cost-effective.

Photo from Habilou Ouro-Koura

What do you hope to gain from your fellowship?

I want to gain as much experience as possible in the field of marine energy and technology by working with scientists and engineers at a national laboratory, so I can start a career in the field of marine energy or water power in general.  

What advice do you have for someone thinking about applying to the Marine Energy Graduate Student Research Program?

It is so beneficial to gain experience working with experts on a project. Securing this fellowship will help achieve that goal.

What advice do you have for other people who might want to pursue a career in either water power or renewable energy?

People think renewable energy is a small sector. But every field started with a very small group. The advice I would give is to look to the future. You can grow with the technology. So just take the risk. Be part of the people who are solving the climate problems and global warming and creating new, green energy technologies. Be part of the dreamers.

Sounds like you’re an optimist.

Yes! There is a lot of work to do. And we need more people to get interested in that work. But 20–50 years from now, we could be safely harnessing marine energy to power coastal areas and distribute these energies inland to help the country transition to carbon-free energy.