A Student Explains How Milkshakes and Drilling Disasters Are Connected

Mitchell Johnson, the 2017 Texas Student Research Showdown winner, explains the properties of measuring fluids in oil and gas wells.

The Texas Student Research Showdown aims to prepare undergraduates for success in their careers by challenging students to create a two- minute video about their research and then present it to a live audience and judging panel.

How can oil and gas well drilling be improved? Can Bluetooth signals control elements of the user’s environment? How do endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect individuals and their offspring?

These are just a few of the questions that were proposed Wednesday night at the Texas Student Research Showdown.

The Showdown goes beyond the typical posters and graphs setup you might expect at a research competition. The finalists pitch to a live audience and judging panel and give meaning to the statistics and data they have collected.

Out of the six finalists, Mitchell Johnson, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, won first place with his research on developing automated drilling fluid property measurements.

Mitchell Johnson

“It turns out drilling an oil and gas well is kind of like drinking a milkshake through a straw,” said Johnson.

“A milkshake can be hard to enjoy when you first get it. It can take a certain amount of pressure before it begins to flow,” he said. “The same is true of an oil well, and the amount of pressure needed can be hard to predict.”

The only way to accurately predict the behavior of drilling fluids in the well is to do it in real time on the rig itself. It is a tedious and potentially dangerous procedure that requires people to put themselves at risk to test the mixture by hand. Because of that, the pressure on the rig is measured only once or twice a day.

Johnson wants to solve this problem. Current practice is not able to keep up with changing properties, he said. It should be measured every minute, not every 12 hours. To do that, he invented an automated system for determining the rheological properties of drilling fluids in real time.

“We will be able to automate the drilling fluid measurements that are taken manually by engineers every day,” said Johnson. “We will remove someone from harm's way if there are accidents on the drilling rig and obtain better logical measurements, which will hopefully prevent catastrophic incidents.”

In December, Johnson will be testing the system at a drilling rig in West Texas.