How Wind Tunnels Work

Wind Tunnels Prove Their Worth
Vertical wind tunnels, like this one in China, let skydivers practice their techniques indoors.
Vertical wind tunnels, like this one in China, let skydivers practice their techniques indoors.
Getty Images News/Getty Images

Engineers and manufacturing specialists use wind tunnels to improve not just airplanes and spacecraft, but an entire assortment of industrial and consumer products. Automobile makers, in particular, rely heavily on wind tunnels.

General Motors' Aerodynamics Laboratory has the biggest wind tunnel for studying car aerodynamics. Since building the tunnel three decades ago, the company's engineers have reduced the coefficient of drag of their vehicles by around 25 percent. That kind of improvement boosts fuel economy by two to three miles per gallon.

Race-car makers use the tunnels to improve car aerodynamics, particularly speed and efficiency, to help them get a competitive edge. AeroDyn Wind Tunnel, for example, is located in North Carolina and specializes in testing full-size NASCAR stock cars and other racing cars and trucks. Another company, called Windshear, also operates in North Carolina and owns an advanced closed-circuit tunnel with a built-in rolling road, which is basically a huge treadmill for cars.

Electronics engineers use small wind tunnels to see how airflow affects heat buildup in components. Then they can design cooler computer chips and motherboards that last longer. Utilities managers use wind tunnels to test wind turbines used to generate electricity. Wind tunnels help make the turbines and their blades more efficient, effective and durable, so they can withstand constant, powerful gusts. But wind tunnels also help engineers determine wind farm layouts and turbine spacing, so as to maximize efficiency while minimizing power-sucking turbulence.

Wind tunnels and test models aren't cheap to build. That's why more and more organizations are deactivating their wind tunnels and shifting to computer modeling (also called computational fluid dynamics), which is now often used in place of physical models and tunnels. What's more, computers let engineers adjust infinite variables of the model and the test section without time-consuming (and expensive) manual labor. Physical tunnels are sometimes used only to retest the results of computer modeling.

Construction engineers use computer modeling for wind engineering testing to help them design and build skyscrapers, bridges and other structures. They investigate the interplay of building shapes and materials and wind to make them safer and stronger.

For now, though, wind tunnels are still in active use all around the world, helping scientists make safer and more efficient products and vehicles of all types. And even if newer virtual technologies do eventually replace physical wind tunnels, these marvels of engineering will always have a place in the history of humankind's development.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Access Science from McGraw-Hill. "Wind Tunnel." (May 30, 2011).
  • Analysis Tech web site. "Semiconductor Thermal Analyzers." (May 30, 2011).
  • Arnolds Air Force Base press release. "National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex." Feb. 18, 2009. (May 30, 2011).
  • Baals, Donald D. and Corliss, William R. "Wind Tunnels of NASA." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1981. (May 30, 2011).
  • Bodyflight home page. "Welcome to BodyFlight." (May 30, 2011).
  • Bradshaw, Peter and Rabi Mehta. "Wind Tunnel Design." Sept. 8, 2003. (May 30, 2011).
  • Centennial of Flight web site. "In Depth: The Wind Tunnel." 2002. (May 30, 2011).
  • Colorado State Wind Lab. "Research & Service." 2008. (May 30, 2011).
  • Engineering Laboratory Design. "Wind Tunnels." (May 30, 2011).
  • Franklin Institute. "The Wind Tunnel." (May 30, 2011).
  • Hartley-Parkinson, Richard. "Rare Glimpse into World's Biggest Wind Tunnel that Blows Gusts Twelve Times the Speed of Sound." Feb. 8, 2011. (May 30, 2011).
  • Hitt, David. "What are Wind Tunnels?" April 27, 2010. (May 30, 2011).
  • Johns Hopkins University. "Better Turbine Spacing for Wind Farms." Feb. 7, 2011. (May 30, 2011).
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "MIT's Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel." (May 30, 2011).
  • NASA Fact Sheet. "NASA's Wind Tunnels." May 1992. (May 30, 2011).
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Wright Brothers Facility." (May 30, 2011).
  • Montagne, Bill. "Aerodynamics in Race Cars Explained." August 2009. (May 30, 2011).
  • NASA Glenn Research Center. "1901 Wind Tunnel." (May 30, 2011).
  • NASA/Ames Research Center. "NASA Tests Launch Abort System at Supersonic Speeds." July 27, 2010. (May 30, 2011).
  • NASA/Ames Research Center. "NASA to Test Wind Turbine in World's Largest Wind Tunnel." April 7, 2000. (May 30, 2011).
  • Onera web site. "Capabilities." (May 30, 2011).
  • Paur, Jason. "NASA Pursues 'Whisper Mode' in World's Biggest Wind Tunnel." June 10, 2010. (May 30, 2011).
  • Rail Tec Arsenal. "Vienna Climatic Wind Tunnel." (May 30, 2011).
  • Riso National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy. "Flexible Trailing Edge for Blades to Make Wind Power Cheaper." April 7, 2011. (May 30, 2011).
  • Rumerman, Judy. "The First Wind Tunnels." (May 30, 2011).
  • RWDI web site. "Wind Tunnels Overview." (May 30, 2011).
  • Toyota Motorsports site. "Wind Tunnel & Support Services." (May 30, 2011).
  • University of Michigan Engineering. "Wind Tunnels." (May 30, 2011).
  • U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. "Wind Tunnel." (May 30, 2011).
  • Wert, Ray. "A Look Inside the World's Largest Automotive Wind Tunnel." Aug. 5,2010. (May 30, 2011).
  • Wind Tunnel Skydiving home page. "Vertical Wind Tunnel Skydiving for Advanced Free Fall Training Instruction." (May 30, 2011).