Flow Visualization Lab Explores Bio-Inspired Propulsion

Melissa Green runs the Flow Visualization Laboratory at SyracuseCoE, where her research focuses on vortex dynamics and bio-inspired propulsion. The lab itself—a water tunnel that allows researchers to visualize the complex dynamics of fluid flows by using sheets of laser light to illuminate dyes injected in a water tunnel—is located in the lab wing at SyracuseCoE headquarters.
It’s a natural fit, says Green, an SU assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who anticipates collaborations with researchers from local industry and within Syracuse University. Currently, Green is using the lab to investigate the ways fish and aquatic mammals manage their locomotion to be extremely efficient. “The goal is to determine whether there are any simple physics that we can exploit for man-made applications,” she says.
It’s known as energy harvesting. Similar to a windmill that takes the kinetic energy of the wind already blowing and transforms it to work or store, fish swimming upstream will often “rest’’ behind pilings in a river, slaloming in its wake, says Green. “In this scenario, the fish is using the energy imparted to the wake by the shedding of vortices to minimize the energy it has to input,” she explains. Underwater vehicles might take advantage of the same types of opportunities to be more efficient.
Finding and exploiting sources of energy that occur more naturally has obvious connections to the mission of SyracuseCoE, but Green finds additional benefits in her lab location. “By locating the water channel facility in a LEED® Platinum building like SyracuseCoE headquarters, we can learn something about how to do even fundamental fluid dynamics research in a more sustainable way—by possibly sourcing the working fluid from rainwater and by reusing the water in the building after experiments,” she says. “That isn’t always a consideration in laboratories at other universities.”
Although SyracuseCoE headquarters is itself a “living lab,” with test facilities located throughout, the building ’s lab wing is outfitted with state-of-the-art laboratories and testbeds that focus on combustion and thermal power systems, biofuel production, flow visualization, photovaltaic power, window power, and smart building technologies.
The facilities were outfitted through a $3-million grant from New York State, awarded as part of a Regional Economic Development Council competition. University researchers and industry partners use these world-class facilities as a platform to discover and test the next generation of energy-efficient innovations for buildings and the environment.
Although each have specific focus areas, the juxtaposition of these labs and their researchers may spark new inquiry, or at least new ways of looking at old problems. “Interacting on a more regular basis with local industry and faculty from different labs at SyracuseCoE lets me see natural overlaps with the research being done in civil and environmental engineering, biomedical and chemical engineering, and by other faculty in mechanical and aerospace engineering,” says Green. “The proximity to the other research groups and interactions with local industry will be an invaluable source of inspiration and collaboration.”