Western University facility creates mini tornadoes

Watch the video above: Western University researchers recreate conditions where a tornado destroys a house.

LONDON, Ont. – Canada may not be as tornado-prone as our southern neighbours, but that hasn’t stopped Canadian researchers from trying to better understand one of the most destructive forces of nature.

Western University’s Wind, Engineering, Energy and Environment Research Institute (WindEEE)  has created the world’s first hexagonal wind tunnel. While other wind tunnels have been able to reproduce wind damage in a straight line, this unique tunnel nestled in London, Ont., will allow researchers to simulate real tornado vortices.

READ MORE: A look at tornadoes in Canada

The $34-million facility hosts a 25-metre dome that can not only produce the vortex of a tornado, but can also move horizontally for five metres producing wind speeds near 225 km/h, the equivalent to an EF3 tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

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WATCH: Tornado vortex at WindEEE facility

The dome contains 106 fans with metal slats in front of the fans moving at different angles, allowing it to shape the tornado. Each fan is controlled separately and there are 11 cameras that allow staff to monitor the conditions in the tunnel right up to the second.

The researchers can build models of cities or towns, including terrains on the centre of the rotating five-metre wind dome in order to simulate what a tornado would do to various structures. Though the winds wouldn’t be as strong as those in a tornado, researchers would need to scale the winds and pressures up.

The goal is to provide a better understanding of how homes and buildings can be better constructed, something that insurance companies are very interested in knowing, Horia Hangan, founding director of the WindEEE Research Institute told a group of journalists on Monday.

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A wall of fans at the WindEEE facility in London, Ont. Nicole Mortillaro/Global News

“You will not be able to build normal houses that would withstand an EF4 or 5,” Hangan said. “But you can build parts of those houses, like in the basement…for people to go to. You can also build parts of hospitals that would stand after a tornado, so they are there to actually take care of the people.”

The facility has attracted worldwide attention.

“We had the WindEEE symposium in October, last year, and we attracted more than 100 researchers from around the globe,” Hangan said.

“More recently we’ve been engaged in the largest European research program that is called Horizon 2020 and we are already part of one big project about the control of wind turbines,” Hangan said.

WindEEE operations manager Andrew Mathers stands below the massive fan at the facility. Nicole Mortillaro/Global News

And that’s the beauty of the facility: it not only focuses on the engineering aspect of buildings, but also energy and the environment.

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According to Hangan, wind turbines in Canada underproduce power by 15 per cent compared to what they were designed for. This is due to errors in the models, where the effects of topography and tree canopy weren’t fully understood. Fans on a wind farm also change the way air travels over the other turbines.

Then there is the noise factor — Cameron Siddiqui, a research scientist at WindEEE, told Global News that they hope to understand what is causing the vibrations that some people who live near wind farms have complained about.

The WindEEE hexagonal wind tunnel at Western University in London. Nicole Mortillaro/Global News

“The source comes from the wind turbine blade itself, so once we get a better scientific understanding, that can help us to develop some ways to minimize these pressure fluctuations at the source…to reduce the noise,” Siddiqui said.

The environment aspect would be looking at how pollution travels around a city, for example.

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“You can see how the pollution is dispersing in a city block,” Siddiqui said. “You can put a scale model of a city block or the downtown core…and you can use smoke or some other way to see how the pollution disperses.”

READ MORE: U.S. company creates protective blanket to shield children from tornado debris, shootings

It took two years to construct the building. It contains over 1000 tons of steel and the main fan weighs 44,000 pounds.

For now, the WindEEE facility is undergoing testing, but Andrew Mather, operations manager said they expect it to be fully operational for researchers by September.

Mather also said that they’ve gotten some interesting questions about what to include in their scale models for tornado research, and many people want to stand in it.

“We’ve even been asked to include a cow in a model,” he said laughing, referencing the movie Twister. “Maybe we’ll do that one day.”