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Sparking new ideas

Release date:
16 December 2020
From designing machine-learning tools for wind turbines to building a program that tracks market-moving events using social media, a group of budding data scientists is helping bp develop digital solutions for complex energy challenges — that is, when they’re not taking classes or cramming for finals.
Illinois students on a conference call

Interns from bp Spark and bp’s summer internship program participated in a virtual ‘hackathon’.

They’re students working part-time with bp through bp Spark, a program the company launched last year at the University of Illinois Research Park to engage with the next generation of talent. 

“bp Spark provides students with opportunities to tackle technology projects that bring real value to our company,” says Bryan Copeland, bp Spark site director. “The goal is to phase their work into our businesses.” 


Solving real-world energy challenges


Students in the program work closely with bp experts to develop proof-of-concept prototypes for digital solutions ranging from big data and machine learning to cloud computing. Projects cover multiple disciplines, including basic market and technology research, data analytics and visualization, user-interface analysis and software development.

A project that has been running since the program’s inception focuses on developing data analytics that can predict the remaining operational life of a wind turbine. Students have been working with data scientists and other experts within bp’s wind business to develop a model that can eventually be deployed to its wind farms. 

“The site can use that prediction to guide their maintenance activities and prevent unplanned downtime,” says Dr. Ruoyu Li, advanced analytics program manager for bp Wind Energy and supervisor of the bp Spark wind team. “This helps reduce maintenance costs while improving safety and increasing the reliability of the turbine components.” 

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is just 80 miles away from bp’s Fowler Ridge wind farms, where students have been testing the model. Located in central Indiana, the facilities have a combined 355 wind turbines with 600 megawatts of total generating capacity. 

“By avoiding unplanned maintenance, the site can also gain more production time and ultimately generate more power,” Dr. Li adds.

Close-up aerial image of Wind Turbines at Fowler Ridge Wind Farm

Building a pipeline of talent


With digital and innovation at the forefront of bp’s new strategy, building a team of talented data scientists and information technology experts is critical, says Tom Inglis, vice president of global compute platforms. 


“We need a pipeline of world-class talent, particularly in our innovation and engineering team, to help us develop the technology solutions that will enable bp to deliver on our purpose to reimagine energy,” Inglis says.


This year’s program includes 25 students whose majors range from computer science and statistics to graphic design. Since the program launched last year, six bp Spark students have started working for bp full-time or have accepted offers to join the company after they graduate. 


Jonathan Zoia, an engineering graduate student, has been working on the turbine analytics project as well as other deep learning with the wind business. After graduation, he plans to join the digital development program within bp’s innovation and engineering team in January. 


“You can sit in the classroom and learn something, but how do you apply it to real life?” he says. “A lot of the work that was done at bp Spark complemented the programming coursework that I’ve taken.” 


Next-generation skills 


As bp undergoes a digital transformation on its path to becoming an integrated energy company, it will need experts with skills in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, data science and computer engineering – key skills that are transferrable across disciplines. 

“The challenge ahead is that every company is going to depend on those skills, not just energy companies,” Inglis says. “The only way to access that in-demand talent pool is to continue working further upstream in our outreach and in bringing them into our company’s ecosystem.” 


bp, a longtime strategic partner of the University of Illinois, opened the bp Spark center at Research Park in April 2019. While the facility – which includes open, collaborative workspaces and meeting rooms – has been closed since the spring due to COVID-19, students have been working virtually, using video calls and other online tools to stay connected on their projects.  


Inglis says that running a virtual version of the program has sparked ideas about working with other universities using the same approach. 


“If bp Spark can be more than just a place, if it can be more of a framework, then it could open up opportunities to partner with other schools as well.”