Weather and innovation meet at ACE

A look at the inside of the ACE climatic wind tunnel. The white lights changed colours due to the aerosols and particles mixing and lingering in the air. Photo credit: Kathryn Fraser

A small boy stares up at the sky.

He lives in a small mountainous village located near Ankara, the capital city of Turkey.

He watches the clouds move across the blue — the boy analyzes how the shapes transform and he gazes in amazement. If only he knew that one day he would study those clouds and travel around the world as a meteorologist. One day, his love of weather will take him to Oshawa.

Doctor Ismail Gultepe, an arctic cloud research scientist and meteorologist at Environment Canada, studied engineering and meteorology at the University of Istanbul.

Dr. Ismail Gultepe at UOIT’s wind farm. He frequently collects data from the university’s sensors. Photo credit: Kathryn Fraser

He lived in Turkey for more than 22 years before traveling to the United States to further his education. He attended Saint Louis University in Missouri as well as studied at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

“Meteorology is almost 90 per cent of my life,” he says. “If there is no weather, we are not existing.”

A new partnership between Environment Canada and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) has placed Gultepe at the forefront of meteorological research in Oshawa.

“The one reason I am [here] is the wind tunnel,” he says. “In the climatic wind tunnel, you can control the weather in an artificial environment. It’s like an atmosphere.”

Located inside of the Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE) at UOIT, the climatic wind tunnel draws in many industry professionals from around the world.

Automotive engineers, aerospace technicians, tier one suppliers, health scientists and students use ACE’s five testing chambers, including the tunnel, to research and conduct projects. The space has also been used by the media to broadcast events and by large movie companies to film scenes and gather the climatic action.

The $100 million facility was built eight years ago on June 13, 2011 and is uniquely owned and operated by the university.

Through simulations and tests, the wind tunnel connects education, community and science together, hoping to provide a better understanding of the natural world around us.

The wind tunnel changes the land where we stand by transforming the land through meteorological technology.

ACE runs a separate business alongside educating students. The wind tunnel generates revenue by allowing stakeholders in the community, larger corporations and smaller businesses to test their ideas and equipment in the elements.

John Komar, the director of ACE, has been involved with ACE since it was first conceptualized. He is currently responsible for the “entire operation” and says 85 per cent of clients who use the tunnel are from the transportation sector.

“We’re another tool in Canada’s toolbox,” Komar says.

“We can help the large companies like GM [General Motors] and IBM [International Business Machines] and we can also help the smaller startups. We’re always ahead of the curve, we have to be Canada’s innovator. In this particular position, we never say no and we’re always looking at what can we do as opposed to what do we always do.”

Clients create hovercrafts, develop supercars and design wing suits – and with the help of ACE, test their products in a controlled environment.

“The most fascinating thing about my job is that it’s never the same,” Komar says. “We do fundraising, we do awareness, we do open houses. Our idea is not to leave science on the shelf but put science into the marketplace.”

Not only are products and physical equipment tested, but humans are put to the test as well.

“You can test human factors and decision making under extreme temperatures,” Komar says. “We [also] develop resiliency training for emergency services personnel.”

ACE assists in adapting technology, specifically automotive machinery, to better withstand harsh environments and accidents on the road. The development of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence in transportation opens new opportunities to test quality assurance in the tunnel.

“We are developing technologies that will reduce accidents and save lives,” Komar says. “[We look at] how do we adapt to the signal processing, how are we making our decisions as we move forward in mobility and transportation. Who knows what the vehicles are going to look like [in the future]. How does the harsh environment affect performance and how is that going to be tuned into the artificial intelligence algorithm. It’s going to start here before it hits the road. We’re on the edge of a technology disruption and we’re a part of it.”

Komar says the climatic wind tunnel and testing chambers at ACE have created visible and diverse growth in Oshawa.

“Take a look at the landscape: it used to just be horse farms to the north of us,” he says. “We used to be on the edge of Oshawa. We are now in the centre and this university and college community here is generating more employment than our greatest employer in the city.”

But how does the wind tunnel physically change the land where we stand?

“At the click of a mouse we can turn on a snowstorm,” Komar says. “We can go from minus 40 to plus 60 degrees Celsius with full spectrum UV rays in a matter of six hours. We can go from a dry dessert to a wintery blizzard. We’re one of the few places in the world that has falling snow [simulations]. We’re the only place in the world [to simulate] cross winds. Light snow to heavy snow to slush to freezing rain to rain to sunshine.”

The entire building is a machine. Komar says it’s a football field long, half a football field wide and five stories high.

“It’s all interconnected through a control panel,” he says.

Andrew Norman, the climatic wind tunnel operator, agrees.

Norman says the main computer controls humidity, temperature, wind speed and other factors. But when creating precipitation, it goes beyond the single system.

“We have three snow guns.” he says. “[Our snow creator] is kind of a stand alone system. We control the rain through another system.”

Norman says the wildest weather the tunnel manipulated was high speed rain. Category four hurricane force wind gusts propelled out of a fan on the ceiling and down the 18 foot tunnel. The wind instantly circulated back to the surface and shot through a rain rig, spraying water in every direction. This combination created “miserable” conditions.

“It’s like pulling a plug in the bathtub, it’s just unbelievable,” he says. “[The water] goes down into the basement, gets collected in the drains and goes out to a tank. We’ve never actually had any concerns about [flooding].”

After running recent snow and rain particle testing in the tunnel, Dr. Gultepe takes simulation data he’s collected and compares it to data from our real atmosphere.

Contrail clouds set behind weather instrumentation at UOIT’s wind farm. Photo credit: Kathryn Fraser

The wind farm, located just north of the campus, houses Environment Canada instrumentation, technology and sensors. Rain, wind and snow gages, snow depth sensors and equipment which measures atmospheric temperature, relative humidity and fog visibility transmit data to a trailer full of computers.

Gultepe says Environment Canada is still in the process of donating the sensors and meteorological instrumentation worth $1 million to UOIT.

“All the instrumentation is part of ACE,” he says. “[It’s a] big contribution and opens a new era for the university in respect to meteorology.”

Gultepe says he chose to study meteorology because he wanted to understand the environment and how to predict the weather. At ACE, he learns how to better predict the weather everyday while staying inside.

“[It’s important to] characterize the things going on around you and understand why those things happen,” he says. “The convective storms, the weather modifications, the formation of the clouds, and also how the people are being affected.”

Gultepe says educating children at an early age about the environment will ensure a safer and cleaner tomorrow. He says people need to respect not only the weather, but vegetation, topography, mountains, plants and animals.

“We [have to] protect the environment, you have to be part of nature,” he says. “Controlling nature is okay but you can’t control it 100 per cent. You have to be part of it.”