UM to begin Panama Canal research

Graphic by Brittney Bomnin//Art Director
Graphic by Brittney Bomnin//Art Director

A group of UM professors and students have received a grant to study the building of a cutting-edge water tunnel research facility in the Panama Canal Zone.

The project will put the University of Miami in a leading position for fluid mechanics experiments and help push its research to the forefront. The university will also be involved in the management and operation of the facility once built, providing new research and development opportunities for UM students.

The purpose of the water tunnel- a progression from wind tunnels- would be to test the resilience of structures and materials against high wind pressures that are simulated by the force of water, said College of Engineering professor Antonio Nanni, chair of the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department and principal investigator on the project.

“What if we could use water instead of air to do the same type of work?” said Nanni, who is teaming up with GeCheng Zha of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Brian Haus from RSMAS and post-doctoral associates Bertrand Dano and Antonio De Luca in the College of Engineering.

Several water tunnels already exist, but UM’s project would have several advantages. In addition to being the largest in the world, the power generated inside the tunnel would be completely natural, unlike other water tunnels that depend on electric power. Also, due to the fact that water is denser than air, the effects would be maximized on the materials being tested.

“The beauty of our idea was in the fact that we could create a water tunnel that would have dimensions that are in order of magnitude higher than what is available in the world now,” Nanni said.

The test section of the structure would be 13 feet by 13 feet by 66 feet long. Models of structures, ranging from buildings to automobiles and aircrafts, would be placed inside. These structures would be tested against a force of water that can reach a speed of 66 feet per second or, as Nanni explained, a little more than half a football field.

“It’s concrete in our minds, but we don’t get to build it,” Dano said. “We have a good idea of what we want to do; we just need to get to phase two.”

Nanni said the Panama facility would address a scale factor that limits other centers and would make the research gathered from the experiments more accurate and, therefore, more beneficial in building structures and materials that can withstand extreme weather conditions.

The proposed location of the research facility is near the Madden Dam at Alajuela Lake. The water from the lake would be used to operate the facility through a gravitational flow instead of using electrical power.

The grant for the UM study came from the Corporacion Andina de Fomento, which supports similar projects. UM is also working with the nonprofit Fundacion Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge Foundation), which is located nearby the canal zone at Fort Clayton.

The feasibility study, which is expected to be complete by April 2011, would be the first out of four phases of the project, but those behind it have high expectations for what is to come.

“It’s definitely exciting, a great experience. I feel kind of lucky,” said De Luca, who graduated in December.

Laura Yepes may be contacted at