© 2021 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Business and Economy

UMaine Unveils New Ocean Engineering Lab

Jay Field
The wave basin and wind-simulating fans at the Alfond Ocean Engineering Lab.

ORONO, Maine — If you're a shipbuilder, looking to construct vessels that can better handle the worst ocean storms, the University of Maine may be able to help you.

In Orono Monday morning, members of Maine's Congressional Delegation and the Obama Administration joined scientists, students and nonprofit leaders to celebrate the opening of the Alfond Ocean Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing Laboratories.

"This is the new lab. We're just going to take a few people in right now," says Dr. Habib Dagher, who heads the UMaine Composites Center, walking through a door and into a building the size of a small airplane hanger.

U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin follow Dagher to the edge of a concrete, rectangular basin filled with water.

"You see the floor down there?" he asks. "It moves up and down. So the basin floor moves up and down to change water depth from the ocean."

The floor can go down as deep as 16 feet. An artificial beach, made of composite material, stretches across the far end of the basin. Dagher signals scientists monitoring a computer, and 16 paddles at the near end of the basin begin thrusting back and forth through the water.

Dagher and his team can simulate waves as high as 100 feet in this lab. A tunnel of fans sits at the far end of the basin, above the roiling water.

"This wind machine you see out there allows us to change wind speed with height," he says. "So to simulate how the wind changes in the ocean."

There are other labs in the country with wave basins and wind tunnels. But Dagher says the new Alfond Ocean Engineering Lab is the first to put a wind tunnel over a wave basin.

A second lab, nearby, will allow scientists to build experimental boats, oil and gas rigs, ocean energy and other structures from fabricated wood, foam, composites and metal. The prototypes will be placed in the simulator and exposed to extreme ocean conditions.

Credit Jay Field / MPBN
Angus King (right to left), Habib Dagher, Susan Collins and Bruce Poliquin.

Later, at the dedication ceremony, Collins says the new lab would improve Maine's industrial competitiveness.

"It will create new jobs," she says. "It will advance renewable energy in wind power, wave and tidal. And it may well help protect our coastal cities from major storms."

Start up and operation of the lab will cost nearly $14 million over the next three years. The project had brought in just under $10 million when another speaker at the ceremony stepped to the microphone.

"Harold Alfond was very fond of saying, 'Don't tell me. Show me,'" says Greg Powell, who runs the Harold Alfond Foundation. "For nearly 20 years, as it is this morning, the composites center is all about showing success and accomplishment. So on behalf of the foundation, I am delighted to show our support by delivering this check and announcing our grant commitment to the center in the amount of $3.9 million."

Other funding for the Alfond Ocean Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing Laboratories has come from grant competitions and a voter-approved bond, funded by the governor and Legislature back in June.

The Alfond gift will allow the labs to buy more equipment and hire more engineers and students to help get the facilities up and running.