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Reverse engineering nature

Researchers in a new Queen’s-based lab are studying how animals move through water and air in the hopes of improving hydro- and aerodynamic design of industrial technologies, such as wind turbines.

Purple dye shows the flow generated by the model being towed through OTTER.

The Optical Towing Tank for Energetics Research (OTTER) will be used to perform high-speed laser measurements of the flow around moving objects. These measurements can have industry applications in areas such as aerospace, defence and renewable technologies. No real animals are studied in the tank, but abstractions of them are created, such as a simplified wing geometry, to determine how animals who are natural swimmers and flyers move.

“The OTTER Lab will be used for a large range of aerodynamics and hydrodynamics research and helps put Queen’s ahead in terms of the development of future technology surrounding defence, alternative energy and aerospace systems,” says David Rival, OTTER lab supervisor and a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “Since natural systems have evolved much more elegant ways to deal with unsteady flows, much effort goes into reverse engineering nature.”

In particular, researchers at the OTTER Lab have taken an interest in wind-energy modeling, and the optical towing tank will be a key tool in improving the efficiency of wind turbines in gusty environments. In such cases, scaled turbine models are towed through the water-filled tank and the high-speed laser is used to visualize the flow field with micron-sized seeding particles.

OTTER helps researchers study how natural swimmers and flyers move through air and water.

The OTTER is a glass tank holding approximately 15 tonnes of water. As models are towed through, their wakes are examined optically with four high-speed cameras. In this way, performance in terms of propulsive efficiency and maneuverability can be studied, providing insight into the form of natural swimmers and flyers found, such as birds and fish.

“Unlike common wind tunnels used for aerodynamics research, the new optical towing tank at Queen’s has a sealed roof, allowing for high-speed maneuvers of fully-submersed models,” says Dr. Rival.. “Thanks to this, we’re able to measure details of the model wake and explain how shape and movement relate to performance, thus providing information for further design optimization.”