UNC-Charlotte unveils research water tunnel

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - A new water tunnel at a North Carolina university will be used to study race car subjects such as aerodynamics and fuel efficiency along with issues involving other sports, such as swimwear efficiency.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte will unveil the 57,000-pound tunnel Friday in Duke Centennial Hall's Mechanical Engineering Motorsports Center. Construction on the tunnel began more than a year ago.

Water tunnels are used for fluid flow research, specifically to observe how water flows around submerged objects. They also increase the understanding of data from wind tunnels.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

(WBTV Reporter Jeff Atkinson reported on the water tunnel earlier this week on PrimeTime at 7.)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - You know how important racing is to the Charlotte region, pumping nearly $5 billion into the Charlotte region's economy every year.  WBTV pulls the wraps off a new facility at UNC Charlotte that could help local race teams win, and get you a car with better gas mileage.

We're talking about something that uses thousands of gallons of water.  It's called a water tunnel, one of the largest in the United States.. one of only a few hundred in the country.

Designed by a UNCC student working on his PhD, it could put the region on the map in aerodynamic research.

Step into the UNC Charlotte motorsports shop.. and you'd expect to see where they build race cars.  But venture in a little farther.. and what's this?

"This a water tunnel. A hydrodynamic research facility."

Taking up half the shop inside the Mechanical Engineering Motorsports Center on the UNCC campus.

A huge, 56,000 pound circular behemoth that took more than a year to build, cost $100,000 to build and and is the brainchild of 25-year old Sam Hellman.

"There are infinite different experiments we can do in here," says Hellman.

With its many race teams.. the Charlotte region boasts several wind tunnels.. where teams run cars through the paces-- trying to get them to go faster.

But few have gone to this level.. constructing a water tunnel that's the fifth largest in the country.

"The advantage that water tunnels have over wind tunnels is that you can actually visualize the flow."

Why does it matter?.. we'll get to that in a second.  First, Sam turned the thing on.


A 35-thousand dollar propeller churns water.. sending it down the tunnel and through a number of pipes at speeds up to 20-thousand gallons of water a minute.. the amount of water in an average size swimming pool.

"You have the bubbles coming over here..."

Sam showed us how the water responds when it reaches the model race car.  Water in the tank acts like the outside air does.. and this is what they'll be studying.

Designing a car that gets better aerodynamics.  So it'll race race faster... around the track.

And one that can get better mileage.. on the highway.

"Fuel efficiency is one of the main things that automobile maufacturers would be looking at," he said.

At least one Sprint Cup race team in the region is interested in having its cars tested here.

Testing two of its Cars of Tomorrow.. trying them in different formations.. to find out the most efficicent path for racing.

And Sam Hellman is looking for others who may want to get involved.

"We got involved because there's a lot of research available for it and a lot of different opportunities. We really want to gauge what people want out of it in the community."

It took Sam and two others-- his professor and a fellow student 6-thousand hours to build.. a network of 20 others pitched in.. so it really was a team effort.

They'll not only be testing cars.. they hope to do experiments on space equipment and submarines.. as well as test sports gear.. see which swimsuits stand up to the fast speeds.

He took this on as a PhD project?

One professor said he's never seen anybody put this much work into a PhD.

Started out designing the water tunnel and it just snowballed from here.

UNC Charlotte is hosting an Open House on Friday, May 29, 2009.  It will be in Duke Centennial Hall's Mechanical Engineering Motorsports Center from 4:00 - 7:00 pm.  The public is welcome to attend.