U of M lab unveils multi-million dollar redo

MINNEAPOLIS – The University of Minnesota's historic St. Anthony Falls Laboratory celebrates a 16 million dollar renovation this week. The riverside facility was built in 1938 as a WPA works project.

The Laboratory took advantage of the 50-foot drop of the only waterfall on the Mississippi River to power their experiments on fluid dynamics without the use of electric pumps. In one area, there is a diverted channel of the great river running right through the lab.

"Many of us call this the 'mini-ssippi'," said Fotis Soteropoulos, St. Anthony Laboratory Director. "We are using this to study marine and hydrokinetic energy devices which are huge turbines that can be mounted on the riverbed to extract energy from water channels."

There are other turbines in the five story facility that do not involve water, but do involve power generation. The renovation has made the lab's wind tunnel into a year-round research facility.

"For scientific experiments, it is very important to be able to control the humidity and the temperature," said Soteropoulos. "As a result, we had to really have this facility inactive for a significant time of the year."

Improvements in humidity and temperature control have eliminated that problem. Now, tiny wind turbines spin inside the tunnel, often moving remotely to study how positioning the wind turbines affects the air flow to other turbines in a wind farm.

"We want to make wind energy competitive with natural gas," said Soteropoulos.

Soteropoulos calls the Delta basic research area the "crown jewel" of the lab. U of M researchers use state of the art lasers to study how water creates river deltas. The work was crucial in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana.

There is a room with a long, clear plastic case holding green liquid, pushed gently by motorized plastic paddles. It is a facility for studying algae.

"We try to understand how algae respond to fluid flow," said Soteropoulos, "and how we can develop scientific approaches for restoring streams, rivers and improving water quality in lakes."

Possibly more exotic of the experiments is research into something called "Supercavitation."

"The idea is to create vehicles that can be surrounded by bubbles, by big pockets of air, and, as a result, the friction between the water and the air is a lot less," said Soteropoulos. "So, this vehicle can go superfast."

The U.S. Navy is funding that research. The renovated lab is not open to the general public at this time. Tuesday's tour was for media to get a 'look-see' and relay it to interested observers.


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