Tucson tech: UA forges ahead on subsonic wind tunnel for $3M
David Wichner Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 12:00 am
About a year ago, a hypersonic wind tunnel proposed for the University of Arizona became a political football when its $7 million congressional earmark to fund the project was criticized as pork-barrel spending.
The wind-tunnel earmark died in committee – along with many other earmarks – amid federal budget-tightening efforts, and the chance of federal funding for the project anytime soon is dim.
But the UA is forging ahead with a new, subsonic wind tunnel funded partly with federal earmark funding from a couple of years ago.
Wind tunnels are used to test aerodynamic effects on objects such as aircraft, typically using much smaller scale models, and sometimes individual components.
This week, the university expects to choose a company among several bidders to build the new subsonic wind tunnel, said Jeff Jacobs, head of the UA Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.
Jacobs said the project will cost about $3 million, half of which is being paid by the university and half funded by the earlier congressional earmark.
While it’s not supersonic – capable of creating wind speeds faster than the speed of sound – the new subsonic wind tunnel will add state-of-the-art instrument capabilities to the UA aerospace lab.
The lab already has three wind tunnels used for university research and work supported through industry grants and contracts from aerospace companies including Raytheon and Boeing.
“Wind tunnels haven’t changed much in the past 50 years, but instrumentation has exploded, really with the advent of high-speed computing,” said Jesse Little, an assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and head of the project.
The wind tunnel will be able to create airflow of up to 80 meters per second – about 180 mph – with a fan six feet in diameter, powered by a roughly 500-horsepower electric motor, said Little, who came to the UA about a year ago after getting his doctorate from Ohio State University.
The tunnel will feature a laser-aided airflow visualization instrument, as well as sensors to measure three-dimensional velocity, high-speed pressure and velocity fluctuations.
With a working section of only three by four feet, it will be a fairly large wind tunnel for a university, Little added.
The wind tunnel will be available for UA research and for other researchers around the state, as well as for use under contract by industrial scientists.
“The general idea is that this will be a flagship facility for the state,” Little said.
Meanwhile, the idea of building a hypersonic wind tunnel is still alive, though its immediate funding prospects are dead.
The $7 million earmark was proposed by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who said at the time it would leverage a moderate investment of taxpayer money and current engineering programs to help develop revolutionary hypersonic aerospace systems, while creating new high-tech jobs in Southern Arizona.
Though the earmark for the hypersonic wind tunnel was cut, the Arizona delegation managed to insert language in the budget bill expressing the importance of funding hypersonic wind-tunnel research, said Shay Stautz, UA associate vice president of federal relations.
Such language can be used to boost future funding requests as more money becomes available.
“It remains to be seen if that can be leveraged in the future,” Stautz said, noting that Congress will likely be in budget-cutting mode for the foreseeable future.
A senior Raytheon official said that adding a hypersonic wind tunnel at the UA would only strengthen a strong research relationship between the UA and the world’s biggest missile maker.
“Having a world-class wind tunnel at the UofA will significantly improve our research and development capability in high-speed flight … (and) also improve our ability to recruit and retain engineering students,” Bob Lepore, vice president of engineering at Raytheon Missile Systems, said in an e-mail.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181.