Team Illini makes finals of BP’s Ultimate Field Trip


Portrait of Team Illini (Sean Ebihara, Ivan Villamar and Patrick Regan) 

By Masaki Sugimoto

A group of chemical engineering students from the University has advanced to the national finals of BP’s Ultimate Field Trip competition, where Team Illini will compete against six other universities this spring to win the “trip of a lifetime” to the company’s natural gas operations in Trinidad and Tobago.

The annual competition asks students from across the country who are studying in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to solve a real-world global energy problem.

“BP believes that addressing America’s energy challenges requires long-term partnerships between the private sector and leading educational and scientific institutions,” said Khymberly Booth, U.S. university relations director for BP, in a statement. “The UFT has proven to be a fun and effective way to do just that.”

The six other teams moving onto the finals are: Aquasolve from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Aquam Inc from Pennsylvania State University; Owls from Rice University; The Maroon COG from Texas A&M University; Blastoise from the University of Oklahoma; and Roden Analytics from the University of Texas.

All three members of Team Illini, Sean Ebihara (chemistry major), Ivan Villamar and Patrick Regan (chemical engineering majors), are sophomores.

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    This year, BP asked participants to find a solution for cleaning the contaminated water created by the oil industry.

    “One of the things about the competition is that you will never know what problem you are going to get this year,” Villamar said. He considers this to be the biggest challenge of the competition.

    Ebihara said another big challenge is finding the “novel solution” to the problem. He pointed out that there are already thousands of engineers in the industry who are trying to solve the same problem, so coming up with an innovative solution is the key to success. 

    Regan emphasized that researching a good idea is hard work because the solution is expected to be feasible, implementable within 10 years, completely original, environmentally sustainable and friendly, and also financially viable for BP.

    Team Illini members are currently working on a four-minute video, a technical poster and preparing for their final presentation that will be demonstrated this April at the national finals. 

    Despite the vast workload of research and interviews with professors and graduate students, all three members said they are enjoying the preparation process because of what they have learned so far.

    “I think what this competition really teaches us is that you really need to pull from a lot of different sources,” Ebihara said.

    He added that no one can win this competition as just a chemical engineer; only cooperating with sources across every field can make an idea reality. 

    After more than a month’s preparation, the group has settled on their final solution.

    “We’re actually using stuff from the field of biology, bacteria and how they actually precipitate out certain heavy metals and other toxic elements,” Ebihara said. “You usually end up pulling something that you never thought would have been associated with what you’re trying to do, or the, I guess, ‘status quo’ ways to process those types of waste.”

    Team Illini said this competition is a unique opportunity to them not only in terms of academic experience, but also for career opportunities. The UFT Competition gives them a chance to apply what they have learned in the classroom to something real by doing a lot of studying and research outside of class to make their idea a reality.

    Villamar said their competition comes from both big and small universities. Competing against the other six universities made him realize everyone has the same mental potential that should not be undermined.

    “That’s something I’m proud we had, we got to see how we stack up to these other universities,” Villamar said. “We gotta give ourselves some credit for what we do. And it showed, everything up to this point has been a good gauge.”

    Although the burden of a heavy workload made them more vulnerable to giving up, Regan said advancing in the competition kept the team motivated. 

    When talking about their final goal, they all agreed that its the learning experience that matters most.

    Villamar said his goal of this competition is to see how far they can take it and how well they can really do.

    “That’s how I kind of looked at it, you know, we can go out from this and not move on to the next stage but at the end of the day, we still got to learn about something that we didn’t get a chance to before,” Ebihara said. 

    The final competition will be held April 9 in Houston, where BP’s U.S. headquarters is located. The winning team will get a two-week field trip to BP’s natural gas operations in Trinidad and Tobago, along with winning teams from the United Kingdom, Canada and Angola.

    Liyuan can be reached at [email protected].