Mechanical Engineering senior wins Research Showdown

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By comparing drilling disasters to milkshakes, Mitchell Johnson won first place in the 2017 Texas Student Research Showdown.

“Some fluids flow more easily than others ­— it takes more effort to suck a milkshake through a straw than it takes to suck water through the same straw,” Johnson said in an email. “Drilling mud in an oil or gas well is similar to a milkshake flowing through a straw in that temperature and viscosity affect the amount of pressure required to move the fluid.”

Johnson, a mechanical engineering senior, researched the properties of an additive used in drilling mud to develop technology to better measure the behavior of different mud compositions.

“The long-term goal of my work is to prevent blowouts and decrease well costs by giving drilling engineers a better understanding of how drilling mud behaves inside the well,” Johnson said.

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

“Proving a technology in the lab is an important step, but a successful field trial is essential if you want to make an impact in a large, established industry like oil and gas,” Johnson said. “My goal for the test in West Texas is to show that this new measurement technique is as good as, or better than, the current industry standard.”

Johnson’s project intends to improve safety and efficiency in the petroleum and geosystems engineering fields and could impact the industry for years, said Richard Neptune, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“Mitchell’s work is a great example of the breadth of ways that engineering students can make a positive impact on society,” Neptune said.

The Texas Student Research Showdown is an annual video and presentation competition for undergraduate researchers that involves two rounds of competition.

Johnson was one of six finalists, out of 27 submissions, able to present their research to a live audience and judging panel on Nov. 15, said Robert Reichle, senior research program coordinator.

“Research is one of the three main missions of the University,” Reichle said. “Sometimes students don’t see how that necessarily relates to them, so (the Research Showdown) is good to help students become better aware of the possibility of actually engaging in research, becoming part of that big mission of the University.”