Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel Background

What's a water tunnel?
According to Dr. Michael Billet, director of the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel (GTWT), it is a "closed loop" of pipes of different diameters filled with water driven by a motor. The 100 feet of pipes that form the GTWT are arranged in a rectangle about 32 feet high. Within the pipes are approximately 100,000 gallons of water driven by a 2000 horsepower motor which can generate water velocities up to 60 feet per second. One 14 foot stretch of the loop, which has a diameter of 48 inches, is equipped with plexiglass panels and hatches through which researchers can place and then observe objects in the path of the high speed flow.

Who operates the GTWT?
Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory (ARL), a Navy-oriented research facility. Dr. L. Raymond Hettche is director of ARL and Dr. Michael Billet is director of the Water Tunnel Facility. The facility is the familiar building with tall windows on North Atherton Street.

What is the GTWT used for?
Research and instruction at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The Navy originally built the GTWT between 1948 and 1949 to test propellors and torpedo shapes at the former Ordinance Research Laboratory which was renamed the Applied Research Laboratory in 1973. However, Penn state faculty members and graduate students have also used the facility for instructional purposes right from the start. Dr. Donald Ross, who was a graduate student while he served as one of the tunnel's original designers, wrote the first doctoral dissertation based on it. Today, in addition to Navy projects, tunnel-based research has been applied to artificial heart valves, vacuum cleaner fans, car heating and cooling systems, advanced propulsors for commercial ships, pumps for the Space Shuttle and other products. Graduate students still conduct theses there and undergraduates can participate in research there through the Computer Science and Engineering Honors Program, the Mathematics Honors Program, the Engineering Cooperative Program or as part-time employees.

Why is ASME honoring the Water Tunnel?
The Water Tunnel is the 116th National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark to be designated by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). According to ASME, sites are selected as landmarks because they represent a progressive step in the evolution of mechanical engineering or a development of clear historical importance to mechanical engineers. Others include the cable cars of San Francisco, the Apollo Command Module and the Johnstown incline. The Penn State Heart-Assist Pump was named an ASME International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1990.

The ASME citation for the Water Tunnel reads as follows:
"The tunnel was built in cooperation with the U.S. Navy at 48 inches (1.2 meters) in diameter, it was the largest, high-speed tunnel then in existence. It was first used to evaluate the best hydrodynamic design of torpedo shapes and propellers, and later, submarine hulls and propulsion systems. These studies led to advanced research on basic flow problems in cavitation, turbulence, hydroacoustics, transition, hydrodynamic drag, and hydraulic and subsonic turbomachinery. The facility continues to be an invaluable tool for such research."

What are some of the "advances" made possible by the water tunnel?
Dr. Billet, Tunnel director, says that research with the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel has produced significant contributions to fluid mechanics and acoustics that are recognized around the world. These contributions have been applied to naval and commercial vehicle propulsion systems; drag reduction in ships, planes and land vehicles; ship, submarine and airplane propellor designs; pump and fan designs as well as other applications ranging from the U.S. Space Shuttle, to vacuum cleaner fans, to heart valves.


Barbara Hale
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Vicki Fong
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