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London, Ontario dome built to explore wind

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by Mary Baxter last update:Oct 1, 2014

The $30-million (Wind Engineering Energy and Environment research institute in London, Ontario, founded by a University of Western Ontario professor, will have 106 fans positioned around its test chamber to simulate winds such as hurricanes, tornadoes, mircobursts and downbursts. Architect on the WindEEE project is NORR and London-based Tonda Construction Limited is the general contractor.
WindEEE research institute in London, Ont.
The $30-million WindEEE research institute in London, Ont. will have 106 fans positioned around its test chamber to simulate winds such as hurricanes, tornadoes, mircobursts and downbursts. - Photo: Tonda Construction/Western University

Local storms, like the tornado that devastated Goderich, Ontario last year, are responsible for more than 65 per cent of wind-related damage in North America’s interior, says a University of Western Ontario engineering professor.

However, while there are wind tunnels that can evaluate the stress and pressure on structures created by the single direction winds that come with large weather systems like hurricanes, “there is a clear necessity” to invent a facility that can simulate the swirling, multi-directional winds that characterize localized systems, says Horia Hangan.

In 2009, Hangan and Western’s WindEEE (Wind Engineering Energy and Environment) Research Institute, of which he’s a founding director, took up the challenge. Next spring, what he describes as the world’s first large-scale six-sided wind dome will become operational.

The dome, located in London, will use 106 fans positioned around its test chamber to simulate winds ranging from hurricanes to tornadoes, microbursts and downbursts. Each fan can be manipulated individually and accelerated or de-accelerated within one second.

“It’s a totally new type of facility,” says Hangan, noting that it will be used for the first five years to conduct research.

After that it will be available for commercial consulting (the university also has a traditional wind tunnel that has been used to test designs for structures such as the CN Tower and the Confederation bridge that joins P.E.I. to New Brunswick).

He says the dome’s potential uses range from evaluating wind impact on building designs, wind farms and power transmission lines to identifying where wind energy could be collected in cities.

As well, the Institute is obtaining certification for testing small and medium wind turbines as well as solar panels.

The federal and provincial governments each chipped in 40 per cent of the project’s $30 million budget and the university raised the remaining 20 per cent.

Hangan invented the concept and Toronto-based wind tunnel specialists Aiolos developed the facility’s engineering design. The preliminary engineering, such as how many fans were needed and their positioning, took more than nine months to develop.

The architect is NORR, an international architectural, engineering and planning firm.

Andrew Mathers, WindEEE’s project engineer, says developing the equipment and building the facility are closely related. “A lot of the building is the wind tunnel,” he explains.

The building’s domed exterior will be 40 metres in diameter. The hexagonal testing chamber’s diameter is 25 metres. The space between will be used to recirculate air. Elements such as piping and ducting create air blockage so optimum locations for their installation had to be found.

The wind dome’s large steel structure also has to be “supported and interfaced with the existing building,” Mathers adds.

Tom Weller, president of London-based Tonda Construction Limited, the project’s general contractor, describes the project as one-of-a-kind and great for both Western and London. The build, though, has been tough.

“Everything had to be dead on,” he explains. The tolerances they have had to work to are “unbelievable. Even with pouring the concrete the tolerances were very very high.”

The company’s current challenge is applying a steel deck to the domed roof.

Gary Cambridge, general foreman and supervisor for Lor-Don Limited, a custom metal fabricator in London that is also closely involved in the project, estimates there is about half a million pounds of steel in the chamber.

“That’s huge for the size. They need it for the weight because of the different tests they are going to be conducting.”

The upper section of the test chamber doesn’t touch the ceiling but instead hangs from the building’s structure, he notes.

There may be some unusual features but the work is typical in terms of fabrication and installation, he says. Lor-Don built a prototype for the fan walls last November and university researchers used it for air tests.

“We got a lot of the bugs out of the fan walls that way,” he says.

“We’re kind of pleased actually that we had a chance to work on this project and we’re looking forward to seeing it through to the end,” Cambridge says.

“I have a number of people here who have worked on this project for me that are kind of anxious to see what it might produce.”

Hangan says construction on the facility should be complete by January but after that comes a commissioning process to ensure the dome works the way it’s supposed to. A scale wind dome is helping to determine in advance how to control the fans and generate different types of winds.

He calls the facility a “big investment for Canada.”

There has been interest expressed from outside of the country. He says he’d like to see the Canadian industry involved too by either suggesting problems to explore or possibly partnering in the project.

The Institute is much more than a lab, he adds.

“Any type of wind or even energy related problems, related to the building industry, we’d be able to help.”

last update:Oct 1, 2014

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