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Wind Tunnel Test a Real Gift For Solar Car Team

For seven engineering students from the University of Kentucky, the 11-hour drive was more than worth it.

The students are part of the UK Solar Car Team, a group of 40 students who've built a $150,000 vehicle that runs on about as much solar energy as you'd need to power a hair dryer.

This week, they were in Hampton Roads, taking advantage of a rare opportunity.

The faculty at Old Dominion University's Langley Full Scale Tunnel (LFST), the largest university-operated wind tunnel in the world, has donated research time and expertise for the UK students to do aerodynamic testing on their solar car.

Drew Landman, associate professor of aerospace engineering and manager of the LFST, said the tunnel is unique in the size of vehicle it can test. Only NASA has a wind tunnel the size of the LFST in North America, and its rental fee precludes most ground vehicle testing.

Landman hopes that by opening the wind tunnel to groups such as the UK Solar Car Team, they'll see the value of doing full-scale wind tunnel testing, particularly as scientists and engineers strive to make more fuel-efficient vehicles. "It's a win-win," he said.

Nick Such, a UK senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said the team is overwhelmed with the generosity of ODU's offer.

"We never thought we would have an opportunity like this," Such said. "It's far more valuable than anything we could do on a computer. And I don't think we would have been able to do it without ODU's help."

Last summer, the UK Solar Car Team finished 11th out of 15 schools in a 2,400-mile solar car race from Plano, Texas to Calgary, Alberta.

This summer, they're competing in a time trial on a racetrack, and hope their work at the wind tunnel will help them craft a more streamlined vehicle. The winners of last year's road race, the team from the University of Michigan, also tested in the LFST in the recent past.

"Our project is essentially fuel economy on steroids," Such said. "Our car has only two horsepower, so we have to be very careful how we manage our energy."

This week's test involved a little jury-rigging. The force measurement equipment in the wind tunnel is configured for supporting vehicles with four wheels. The UK Solar Car has three wheels. "Whitney Seay, our test team engineer, and graduate student Matt Cragun designed and fabricated a support to provide accurate measurements from the trailing wheel," Landman said.

The LFST opened in 1931. Built by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, it has a storied history. Every fighter deployed by the U.S. Air Force during the World War II was tested in the tunnel.

After the war, the tunnel continued to serve an important role, testing models of fighters, transport vehicles, submarines and other vehicles essential to the U.S.'s global military effort.

With the end of the Cold War, plans were drafted to decommission the tunnel, which by that time had been designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior's National Parks Service.

Old Dominion University took over operation of the tunnel in 1997. Today, it tests vehicles of every shape and size, and many things one wouldn't necessarily think would require wind tunnel testing. "How about garden sheds? Or solar panels? Or cell phone towers?" Landman said.

"Just about anything that people want to test to understand the forces due to wind loadings."

This article was posted on: February 19, 2009

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