Cockrell School of Engineering
The University of Texas at Austin


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 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 and an undergraduate research assistant in the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, won first place with his research on developing automated drilling fluid property measurements.

“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, whose advisor is UT PGE professor Eric van Oort, 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.

Written by Maria Alvarez