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Historic lab gets facelift

After a four-year, $16 million renovation, the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory has returned to full operation.

Measures enacted to combat the Great Recession have revitalized a historic University of Minnesota laboratory born out of a Great Depression-era stimulus program.

Constructed with federal backing under a New Deal public works program in 1938, the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory has officially wrapped up its four-year, $16 million renovation. A $7.1 million National Science Foundation grant covered almost half of the upgrade as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Two major financial catastrophes on the national level led the federal government to stimulate the economy,” said lab director Fotis Sotiropoulos. “In a strange coincidence, we managed to be at the right place [both times].”

Sotiropoulos said the aging structure was modernized with improved research instruments and building upgrades, making it better equipped for 21st-century studies on renewable energy and environmental challenges.

Although construction finished almost a year ago, Sotiropoulos said research at the lab only recently began returning to normalcy.

“When there’s construction, you need some time to put yourself back together,” he said, “and because this is a big lab, it took a while.”

The St. Anthony Falls Laboratory has gravitated toward interdisciplinary work in recent years, bridging departments and disciplines ranging from stream and delta restoration to medical devices, said Mos Kaveh, associate dean for research and planning in the College of Science and Engineering.

“It’s just going to do more of the good things it has been doing all along,” he said. “What makes it different now is that new systems make the possibility of receiving grants in a wider array of projects [more likely].”

Assistant mechanical engineering professor Jiarong Hong, who is researching wind energy there, said he also anticipates the lab’s refurbishment will attract attention, particularly from future researchers.

“If you have a good working environment,” Hong said, “that can attract people to come, especially graduate students.”

A much-needed breath of life

Built to take advantage of the Mississippi River’s rushing currents as they cascade over St. Anthony Falls, the lab’s unique location made it a cutting-edge facility when it first opened, Sotiropoulos said.

It was there that 20th-century scientists found an ideal environment to perform landmark hydraulic research, river engineering, flood protection and dam construction — without having to use massive water pumps.

Spanning the waterfall’s full 50-foot height, the building’s network of labs harnesses the river’s natural water flow for the channels, basins and tunnels its researchers use to simulate rivers and waves.

The passage of time, however, had begun eroding the more than 75-year-old lab’s luster by the time Sotiropoulos became its director in 2006, he said.

“It violated every building code you can imagine,” Sotiropoulos said. “We didn’t have a fire sprinkler system.”

The facility also had no working elevator or central air control systems, he said, the latter of which greatly hindered research.

“The lack of climate control essentially compromised our ability to do precise experiments at certain times of the year,” Sotiropoulos said.

Kevin Howard, a recent University aerodynamics doctoral graduate who spent three years working with the lab’s wind tunnel, said the outdated systems made scheduling experiments difficult.

“If we were doing temperature-sensitive measurements in there, it would be a little bit tougher to plan based on the weather,” Howard said. “Now that we got these thermal controls upgraded, we can do more robust measurements.”

Staff had long sought upgrades to the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, Kaveh said, but it took the NSF grant to finally bring those plans to fruition.

The University’s Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation funds picked up the cost of renovating the lab’s basic infrastructure problems, which the NSF wouldn’t cover, said Sotiropoulos.

He said his team laid out a plan to make the laboratory a world-class research destination.

Now armed with modern facilities, researchers are forging ahead on their studies, which include offshore wind turbines, algae growth, medical devices and waterway restoration.

They’re also looking to push the virtual boundaries of their fields, Sotiropoulos said.

“Our ultimate goal is to build the next generation of computer simulation models,” he said.

Because the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory can’t accommodate all of its global research partners on-site, some of its staff has already laid the basic framework to develop an Internet-based portal into the lab, Sotiropoulos said.

“What we would like to do is provide an experience where somebody, wherever, they can sit on a terminal and work with somebody here in real time,” he said.

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