Horia Hangan doesn't hesitate when you ask him why he finds wind so fascinating.
"Because you can't see it," he says. "Always you have to guess it, you have to reveal it, which is fantastic."
Now Dr. Hangan is ready to reveal the wind like no one has before.
His brainchild is the newly completed Wind Engineering Energy Environment Research Institute – WindEEE – a $34-million domed laboratory that sits like a giant tortoise over the rural landscape near London, Ont. The facility is unique in the world because it can reproduce wind movement in all its three-dimensional complexity, from sudden gusts and downdrafts to swirling tornadoes that rip across a simulated landscape.
"I wanted to do what wind tunnels cannot do," says Dr. Hangan, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and director of the institute.
That goal is accomplished with a hexagon-shaped test chamber that is 25 metres across from wall to wall – roughly the width of a National Hockey League rink. An array of 106 individually controlled fans surrounds the test chamber, including six suspended from above, which blow air in or suck it out at different rates and in different directions. At any given time, the facility may draw up to 1.8 megawatts of power to create anything from a steady breeze to a howling storm, all safely and quietly contained.
"It can be over 120 decibels inside the test chamber and yet we'll hear no more than a slight hum in the control room," says Andrew Mathers, WindEEE's operations manager.
Understanding and predicting the effects of violent storms is one of the domains in which Dr. Hangan hopes the lab will make an impact. By using the fans to rotate air in the test chamber and then applying suction from above, a researcher can conjure up a tornado in a matter of seconds – not life-size but entirely realistic in detail. The machine-made twister can even be moved sideways, sweeping across the inner part of the chamber like a real one might tear across the countryside.
The applications are obvious. Whether due to climate change or sheer bad luck, tornadoes have lately been carving an increasingly tragic and costly swath across the American Midwest. Canada is second only to the United States as the world's most tornado-prone country.
Yet understanding which structures can hold up to a tornado is a challenging problem. Computer simulations can help, but the downside of the digital approach is that it tends to spread out the sharp peaks in wind intensity. It's the strength of those peaks that determines whether a building stands or collapses – such as the elementary school in Moore, Okla., that collapsed on students during a severe tornado last year.
In the aftermath, officials asked whether a safer structure could have been built where the children could have sought shelter.
"But how do we do that? What is strong enough? Those types of questions are driving some of the urgency around this field," says Fred Hann, a wind researcher at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind.
Dr. Haan said that while research facilities in Iowa and Texas have previously managed to mimic tornadoes on a small scale, the breadth and magnitude of what WindEEE is built to do means that it can be a vital testing ground for validating and expanding knowledge of wind and building interaction.
That body of knowledge owes something to Western and explains why WindEEE was invented there. The field of wind engineering dates back to the early 1960s when Alan Davenport, a Canadian- and British-trained engineer, was hired by the New York Port Authority to deal with wind issues related to the soon-to-be built World Trade Center. He later applied the methods he developed to other skyscrapers of the age and established a research group and the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory at Western.
Dr. Davenport, who died in 2009 at age 76, lived just long enough to see the proposal for WindEEE approved for funding by the Ontario government and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
As its triple-E name implies, WindEEE is designed to do other things besides replicating stormy weather. Researchers are also keen to use the lab to study in detail how air moves across terrain where turbines are set up to capture wind energy.
Most wind-powered generators today are built for air that is moving the same way at all points. In reality, their enormous blades can experience drastic changes in wind speed and direction as they cut through the air, which, in turn, can have a big impact on energy output.
This, combined with differences in local landscape as well as turbulence between one turbine and another, can lead to big uncertainties in estimating how much energy a wind farm can generate.
"When people are investing billions of dollars in wind turbines, it's very important that the uncertainties of future production are as small as possible," says Jakob Mann, a wind energy researcher at the Technical University of Denmark.
Dr. Mann is already working with WindEEE on projects that will help optimize wind farm design. Starting in September, a PhD student from Denmark will spend six months doing experiments at the facility.
Canadian researchers are also jumping aboard to explore how the wind works in different circumstances, says Dr. Hangan. One team, led by Stephen Mitchell, a forestry researcher at the University of British Columbia, will study how the wind interacts with trees.
An important part of the facility's plan is to bring in clients from industry and engage them in research projects.
"Our business model is to attract them with [answers to] their problems right now and then make them understand where the problems will be in five years," Dr. Hangan said.
In addition to the energy sector, the insurance industry is also interested in harnessing WindEEE's predictive power to anticipate the costs of future storms, he added.
The facility will be running on a $10-million operating budget over the next five years. After that, says Dr. Horia, "We have a responsibility to make this fly."