By David Goddard. Photography by Nick Myers.
One of the first things people do when moving into a new office is unpack their things. Hang a degree on the wall. Find a spot for their favorite coffee mug.
For Thanos Papanicolaou it was no different, but his accouterments required more space than a normal office. Much more space.
As a professor studying the effects of moving water, Papanicolaou needed room for pumps, gauges, a boat, and a brand new water flume the length of a tractor-trailer.
“The flume really is the centerpiece,” Papanicolaou said. “It can run scenarios ranging from soil erosion simulations to structural tests.”
Resembling a long blue trough, the flume channels water from a continuous recycling pump fed by a tank the size of a small pool, giving it the ability to maintain a flow of up to twelve feet per second. It employs hydraulic lifts to vary the slope up to six degrees and a flow-dampening system to ensure the pump doesn’t affect the testing area.
Civil engineers use the flume to observe how shapes or angles of bridge pilings affect downstream flow.
Papanicolaou also operates two smaller flumes and nearly seventy-five other pieces of equipment, including a rainfall simulator for bank erosion testing. Agricultural researchers use them to study better ways to prevent soil erosion by pinpointing where erosion and runoff originate along stream and riverbanks.
The simulation results benefit farmers by demonstrating the amount of soil they are losing downstream and providing ideas to help protect their soil and the environment at the same time.
“These are things that we can show people conclusively,” Papanicolaou said. “It’s one thing to tell them a theory about what might happen to their structure or their farm, but it’s another to physically be able to show them what will happen.”
A recognized leader in hydraulic engineering research, Papanicolaou holds UT’s Henry Goodrich Chair of Excellence. He has served as editor of various journals and earned funding from NASA, the US Department of Agriculture, and other agencies.
His group has previously tested everything from sediment flow to the effect of rivers on cutting both shorelines and bridge pilings. But bringing the new equipment online opens the door to even greater knowledge.
“With this flume, we can raise the amount of research exponentially,” Papanicolaou said. “By having such a large flume that still has the ability to change flow, volume, and even the slope of the water, we’ll be able to take on projects and research that we haven’t been able to do in the past.”
The facility is open for use by other faculty interested in fostering large-scale multidisciplinary efforts in the broader area of water resources. It also is available to researchers at peer institutions.
“There’s no question other schools will want to take advantage of our advanced resources,” Papanicolaou said.
With his “office” now complete, the real work begins.