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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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Mentorship in Action: State-of-the-Art Water Tunnel Brings ‘Phenomenal’ Possibilities

Aerospace engineers Xiaofeng Liu and Jose Moreto built the instrument, which allows the university to perform cutting-edge research on turbulence flow.
By Kellie Woodhouse and Chris Leap

Doctoral student Jose Moreto has dedicated the last five years of his studies to building a highly technical, extremely rare instrument that allows San Diego State University engineers to predict turbulence flow for ships more efficiently than almost any other lab in the world. 

Moreto has painstakingly perfected the SDSU Water Tunnel with the guidance of his mentor, aerospace engineering professor Xiaofeng Liu, and the help of a team of undergraduate students. 

The state-of-the-art instrument has allowed SDSU to secure more than $775,000 in funding from such agencies as the U.S. Navy, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. And it offers such agencies the possibility of saving millions of dollars in fuel costs. 

The water tunnel uses particle image velocimetry (PIV) to take ultra-fast images — anywhere from 20,000 to millions of frames per second — of particles in the water and measure their velocity, allowing the researchers to evaluate how much turbulence vehicles like warships and submarines create.

“Working with the water tunnel and learning the PIV technique has been really, really important in defining my path as an engineer and researcher,” Moreto said. “The chance to work with such a technical instrument is so rare — just a few labs in the world have this equipment and can develop this kind of research.”

Unlike common methods for determining resistance, PIV measures flow without a physical tool causing disturbance and reducing the accuracy of findings. 

“The water tunnel allows us to obtain accurate, three-dimensional turbulence data, which is essential in designing and building faster, more efficient and less noisy ships,” Liu said. “With improved design and less drag, there is a phenomenal economic savings on fuel.”

Several undergraduate students have worked with Moreto and Liu on the tunnel. Research experience, Liu has found, teaches students how to become more competent problem solvers and better engineers.

“As a senior engineer, I have an obligation to foster the growth of the next generation so that we can produce the workforce that improves the scientific research community and keeps society moving forward,” Liu said.