News / London

Welcome to the Western University tornado factory

They’re making something unusual at London’s Advanced Manufacturing Park, and it could change the world.

They’re making miniature tornadoes – or, at least, something a lot like them.

The experts behind Western University’s huge, hexagonal wind factory, the WindEEE Dome, took Metro on a tour Monday of a unique facility that’s already grabbing the attention of the scientific community worldwide.

“This is the only place that does tornadoes like real tornadoes,” said professor Horia Hangan of Western’s faculty of engineering. “We mimic real tornadoes with their real features.”

At the northern tip of tornado country, it’s a great place to have the dome. It’s part of Western’s wider efforts to encourage tech research near Highway 401, just off Veterans Memorial Parkway in southeast London.

With the accuracy of an academic, Hangan explained that the wind chamber — where those three Es in its name refer to “engineering, energy and environment” — makes “tornado-like vortices” that can recreate the effects of a full-size tornado. Making the real thing is impossible, he said, because of the way a twister behaves. Winds ebb and flow in unpredictable directions, and there’s the added factor of debris picked up by the wind.

But, with a four-metre-diameter “tornado” behind him, made visible by a smoke machine, Hangan said the unique nature of the dome is its ability to recreate high winds that can be studied.

It uses more than 100 fans to make myriad smaller versions of tornadoes and similar weather systems, all linked to a hi-tech system to gather data on what they do. The experts then use calculations to “upscale” those results to full-size events. That can’t be done in traditional wind tunnels, which have wind running in just one direction, and no other facility is as advanced as Western’s dome, with so many fans and so many variables.

“It’s a totally new facility worldwide,” Hangan said. “It doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

But why is it world-changing? Because, within 10 years, it could be changing the way people design buildings, bridges, wind turbines, transmission lines and more.

The complex events inside the dome are to be used to measure the effects on structures, so researchers can recommend ways to improve new ones. Buildings can’t be indestructible but could have safe areas built in.

“Sixty-five per cent of the damage due to wind in North America is actually in interior North America, and it’s basically due to thunderstorms,” Hangan said. “Nothing has been designed for that. Building structures are not designed for that.”

Already, at least 40 researchers at Western are signed up to work on projects using the WindEEE Dome. Each brings five or six graduate students, the first of whom come on board this week.

More than 20 research institutes across the world have signed agreements with Western to use the dome, with funding applications under way.

In other words, the world is on board.

When the stars come a knockin'

It may be a $34 million state-of-the-art scientific research centre, but the WindEEE Dome could have a lucrative sideline faking winds for movies.

Already, the BBC has brought its Top Gear motoring show to film in London, with presenter Richard Hammond spending the day in the wind chamber surrounded by flying ping-pong balls and foam.

If Hollywood comes calling, Western will listen, said professor Horia Hangan, although the dome will have a busy schedule with academic research.

“(Tornadoes) are very popular,” he smiled, when asked about their effect on popular culture. “It’s a love affair about tornadoes. I think it’s because they have not yet been fully explained.”

And, no, he hasn’t seen the movie Sharknado, but he has seen the Wizard of Oz.

More on