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UAH building $2 million wind tunnel

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) will soon be home to a new $2 million wind tunnel system championed by the university’s eminent scholar in propulsion, Phillip Ligrani.

Ligrani’s TranSonic/SuperSonic/WindTunnel, or TS/SS/WT, is under construction in the Air Breathing Test Cell at UAH’s Johnson Research Center. The facility’s test sections will be capable of reaching speeds and air velocities ranging from Mach 1.6 with an airspeed of approximately 1,230 miles per hour to Mach 3 with an airspeed of about 2,300 mph.

UAH wind tunnel
Phillip Ligrani is leading a wind tunnel project at UAH. (Michael Mercier/UAH)

“That gives us the conditions needed for testing,” said Ligrani, the project’s principal investigator and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UAH.

Wind tunnels are used in aerodynamic research to study the effects of air moving past solid objects. Possible test applications for Ligrani’s wind tunnel system include supersonic engine intakes, scramjets and hybrid space vehicles and components.

The project got a boost from the Alabama Innovation Fund, a program administered by the Alabama Department of Commerce to advance academic research that could facilitate new ventures and job creation. Ligrani’s team received $249,810 in funding.

“The state of Alabama provides an excellent and unique environment for the development of advanced research efforts, which are tied to important and vital economic activities, which benefit the scientific and engineering communities, not only for the Huntsville area, but for the entire state,” Ligrani said.

Altogether, 14 projects split $4.5 million in Alabama Innovation Fund grants this year.

“The Alabama Innovation Fund is a key element in our strategy to stimulate breakthrough research at universities and institutions across the state,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “The wind tunnel project being directed by Dr. Ligrani at UAH exemplifies the kind of investigation that that can lead to new insights and new products in the important aerospace sector.”


Ligrani said he hopes to have the wind tunnel facility completed and partially operational by the end of this year. UAH building services has helped develop and install various structures needed to support the wind tunnel, while Die-matic Tool Co. of Meridianville has collaborated to manufacture needed parts and components.

The U.S. Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center in Manchester, Tennessee, helped out by donating four 14-foot-long tanks valued at $1 million and weighing 16 tons each. The tanks once stored rocket fuel but will be used in the wind tunnel system along with a fifth tank to provide compressed air storage at supply pressures up to 2,500 pounds per square inch.

Air from the tanks will be routed through pressure regulating valves to two wind tunnels that are slightly larger than washing machines, where it will rush past objects under research in the 9.6-inch by 4-inch test bed chambers.

“An elaborate valve system will control the flow,” Ligrani said. “This will ensure high enough flow rates and pressures to reach the required supersonic speeds.”

The wind tunnel project’s Alabama Innovation Fund award was supplemented by money from UAH’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, headed by Ray Vaughn. That money is being used for components and equipment needed to install and operate the wind tunnel.

“We are pleased to have Dr. Ligrani’s expertise within our UAH Propulsion Research Center,” Vaughn said. “His research efforts will be greatly enhanced with the new SuperSonic/TransSonic/WindTunnel that he is constructing, and it will open up new research capability that heretofore did not exist at UAH.”

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