Texas Tech's tornado simulator leads world in wind research

KVUE-ABC - They are as mesmerizing, as they are destructive. For decades, scientists have struggled to predict, study, and make sense of a tornadoes' random fury.

They are as mesmerizing, as they are destructive. For decades, scientists have struggled to predict, study, and make sense of a tornadoes' random fury.

Little is known on exactly how tornadoes peel apart and destroy structures, until now.  Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas is leading the world in wind research. Just 10 miles west of the main campus is the retired Reese Air Force Base.  A warehouse that sits on base houses the Vortech Tornado Simulator.  From start to finish, it took Dr. Darryl James and his team a year and a half to build the simulator known as "Vortech."

The vortex of a tornado is the funnel that reaches the ground and swirls debris around it. This Vortech simulator can recreate the force of a 200 mile per hour tornado.

"The vorticity is pulled together and stretched, much like a figure skater that pulls her arms together and starts spinning really quickly," said Dr. Darryl James.

Here is how it works: eight large fans on top, suck up 160,000 cubic feet of air a minute, while 64 carefully placed wooden wind vans surround the simulator.  This creates the initial rotation.  Add some theatrical smoke, and you have a simulated tornado.

The Vortech Tornado Simulator is one of a kind.  You can not find anything like it anywhere in the world, built for research to better understand the wind load of a tornado, or the wind force.  So one day stronger buildings, schools, and homes can be built, which saves could save lives.

"What we hope to do, is to understand how tornadoes load, damage, and destroy buildings. So maybe what we can do, is selectively improve the safety of a building in a given area," said Dr. James.

That wind load, or the force of wind, is applied to modeled homes connected to dozens of pressure sensors. The data collected could reveal clues on which part of the home is the most vulnerable.  Unlike straight line winds, tornadoes have different properties when it comes to pressure because of the intense circulation.

"If we can then understand how the tornadoes interacts and damages buildings, then maybe we can develop codes in which communities adopt to improve the safety of homes," said Dr. James.

Today, there are no tornado building codes in the world, mainly because of the lack of research in this field. It will take years of research with the Vortech tornado simulator to develop precise codes, but the future is promising.  Dr. James and his team have found interesting data when a large wall sits in front of a modeled home.

"We find when we put a barrier wall, it reduces the wind loading on a given structure," said Dr. James. "Now that barrier wall would have to be an engineered wall. It would be a big, strong engineer structure. Most people would not want engineered walls around their house. However, if you have a park or community, perhaps that barrier wall would protect that community."

Tornado research from the Texas Plains could one day protect your community and the whole country.

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