DOE Pulse
  • Number 419  |
  • August 4, 2014

Olufemi Omitaomu:  Paper boats to energy efficiency

Olufemi Omitaomu

Olufemi Omitaomu.

Lawyer, doctor or business professional never seemed fitting for Olufemi Omitaomu—he didn’t talk enough for lawyer shoes, chose to leave medicine for his peers and figured business life lacked flair. 

Scraping his knees playing street soccer in his seaside hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, marked a daily ritual, but what really captivated Omitaomu was the construction yard full of shipbuilders down the block.

His grandmother managed the cafeteria at the shipyard, and Omitaomu began tagging along, learning about ship building in the process.  Outside of the yard, Omitaomu and his friends had fun building paper boats and trying to keep them afloat in storm water runoff when it rained.

Inspired by the ships of his youth, Omitaomu embarked on a mechanical engineering career, eventually landing a senior research scientist position in the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

At ORNL’s Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, Omitaomu mostly works on energy assurance issues related to consumers, power plants and extreme weather.  The projects that he has been involved with have had practical applications, too. 

For instance, the first project he worked on at ORNL, Visualizing Energy Resources Dynamically on Earth or VERDE, was developed after the 2003 blackout that affected much of the northeastern United States and part of Canada.  The technology, which became fully operational in 2009, analyzes the impacts of extreme weather such as hurricanes on the electric grid.

“As of 2003, there was no single system that could give you a global perspective of what was happening,” Omitaomu said.  “The system helps decision-makers understand what is happening on the electric grid.”

Omitaomu hasn’t always been in the same line of work as he is at ORNL.  Although engineering forms the foundation of his interests, he has filled a number of roles within the field.

An ocean away

After finishing his undergraduate degree in Lagos, he found employment in the oil industry, working for Mobil throughout his master’s degree program.  He was involved with many different projects and often met consultants from the United States.  He started asking about doctorate programs.

While one of the consultants was a professor at the University of Tennessee and ultimately recruited him, Omitaomu says the voice of Dolly Parton also attracted him to east Tennessee.

“We listen to American music in Nigeria, and one singer who was very popular was Dolly Parton,” he said. 

Leaving wasn’t easy from a cultural standpoint.  Omitaomu held a much-coveted position in Nigeria, and his family and friends found his decision to go to the United States hard to believe.

“They thought I was crazy,” he said  “Working in an oil industry is one of the best things that can happen to you in a country like Nigeria.  So they thought: ‘What are you looking for, what are you doing?  You want to leave all this and become a student again?’  After getting here, I thought that maybe I was crazy for the beginning of it, but my interest in school and desire to learn new things carried me on.”

That’s not all the kept him going.  Following the completion of his Ph.D., Omitaomu accepted a position at McMaster University in Canada.  Soon after he went north, his mentor alerted him that an ORNL researcher was looking for a post-doc to work in his lab.  In addition to again being recruited, Omitaomu lends credit to his wife for making the decision to come to ORNL.

“Fortunately, my wife did not like Canada because it was too cold.  So I had no choice but to accept the offer,” Omitaomu joked.

 The ORNL lifestyle

Omitaomu lives with his wife Remi and two sons only miles from ORNL, and looks forward to the daily challenges and interdisciplinary collaborations that await him.

“One of the things that really gets me excited each day is the opportunity to work on challenging problems, things that could impact the entire world,” he said, adding that “You are not doing things only in your own area, you are collaborating with other people to get a system view of everything.”

In addition to VERDE, Omitaomu’s major projects include working on the OR-SAGE and CoNNECT applications.  Both focus on energy assurance, which Omitaomu feels is important because population growth is unavoidable and will drive a rise in energy demand that will need to be not only supplied, but managed as well.

OR-SAGE uses a computational framework of the United States to help utility companies identify locations for future power plants, while CoNNECT, a home energy management system that uses geo-visual analytic technology to help inform, engage and motivate customers to analyze their energy usage to reduce their utility bills and save energy, is geared toward the consumer. 

In June, CoNNECT was licensed by Knoxville-based startup Fiveworx. If adopted nationally, estimates suggest that the technology could save billions of dollars for around 90 million customers.

“CoNNECT helps people save money and become more energy efficient, and helps utility companies by reducing their costs of buying electricity.  It has become a win-win for everyone involved,” said Omitaomu.

Again, more of Omitaomu’s work being used in decision-making and showing its importance to people, reasons he finds research fulfilling.

Bad milk

Omitaomu’s future interests lie in big data analytics of the “internet of things,” a term referring to the interconnectedness of electronics other than computers—essentially the way in which electronics communicate with each other using the internet. 

Already, cell phones can be used to control thermostats remotely in some homes. Omitaomu also talks –perhaps wishfully—of how in the future home refrigerators might be able to send a message to phones that the milk has gone bad, alerting a person to pick-up another carton.  Embedded within each interaction is data that could yield unforeseen insight.

“We are connected in mountains of data right now and people are putting their footprint everywhere,” said Omitaomu.  “So how can we use the data out there to better design transportation systems, to better design buildings and to better design electric grids to avoid outages even during a category five hurricane?  That’s the beauty of science, and that’s where we ought to go.” — by Chris Samoray

Submitted by DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory