Researching an Indoor Ocean


FOR Charles Sollitt, making waves is all in a day's work. Here at Oregon State University, Dr. Sollitt is the director of the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, where he and his staff study water waves and their impact on natural and man-made structures. The university's wave laboratory is the largest research-quality wave laboratory in the United States, says Sollitt, sporting tortoise-shell glasses and a marine-green rain jacket. Only two other labs generate larger waves than the five-footers here: one in the Netherlands, the other in West Germany.

``This is a slice of the ocean,'' says Sollitt, as he shows a visitor the ``wave channel'' made of concrete and stretching longer than a football field; 12 feet wide, 15 feet deep.

On one end of the channel, a huge aluminum ``wave board'' moves back and forth generating waves at three-second intervals. At the other end, they are absorbed by a concrete ``beach.'' The height and frequency of a wave is controlled by computer in an elevated control room.

The purpose of the research is safety and economics. Sollitt and his staff simulate waves to measure their impact on sea walls, sand beds, sand dunes, floating bridges, artificial islands, jetties, oil rigs, buoys, even wave pools in amusement parks. The research yields better designs.

Don't expect to hear good news here about building a home on the California coast: ``Some of those homes you simply can't protect ... unless you build them like offshore oil platforms,'' says Sollitt. Annually, the US experiences $2 billion of wave damage to coastal properties, he says.

The research here also affects transportation. Sollitt and crew test designs for marina sections and floating bridges, such as the two that stretch across Lake Washington. Improved designs for jetties and breakwaters make it possible for fishing, recreational, and commercial vessels to travel more safely.

``We get exposed to all different segments of society,'' says Sollitt, noting that clients are both private (oil companies, small engineering firms) and public-sector (state and federal agencies).

One might also say that the lab helps keep oil prices down. By helping to design offshore oil structures - say, an artificial island in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska - they help make the product available. That way, what they do ``does have an impact on people in Nebraska,'' says Sollitt.

Peter Gadd, a partner in Coastal Frontiers Corporation in Altadena, Calif., came to the lab starting in 1981. Mr. Gadd's company wanted to know ways to protect man-made islands in the Arctic Ocean for oil exploration and production. ``It's been quite accurate,'' he says of the data the ``highly motivated'' team of scientists produced. ``It would have been difficult to obtain the information in any other way.'' (Six-ton bags of gravel reflect and absorb the waves around the islands.)

PEERING over the edge of the mammoth wave channel, which can hold up to 350,000 gallons of water, one can't help asking: Has anyone ever surfed it?

Yes, ``we wanted to see if the waves were steep enough to support a surfer,'' Sollitt says matter-of-factly, later producing a photograph of one such surfer in action. ``Since then, I've even surfed on them, and I'm not a surfer,'' he adds.

The lab was recently awarded a five-year, $8.6 million grant by the US Office of Naval Research to explore fundamental wave mechanics and analyze new ocean structures - some made with inflatable synthetic fabrics for use as temporary breakwaters, for example. Part of the grant has gone into new facilities, namely two wave basins now being installed.

Sollitt has been the director here since 1981, but has participated in the research lab since its start in 1973. His interest in ocean engineering sprouted as a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he helped a professor research floating bridges. He has undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees in civil engineering.

``It's a lot of fun and a real privilege,'' says the ocean engineer. There's a lot of satisfaction in ``extending the state of technology.''

Come mid-November, the two new wave basins will be seeing some action. The circular basin, with a spiral wave generator, will allow them to study sediment transport along beaches; the rectangular one with 30 wave generators will allow them to simulate waves of differing heights, frequencies, and directions - all at the same time, as in a storm.

Sollitt is eager to get more waves rolling in the new additions. He says: ``Playing with this equipment is like playing with big toys, and that's fun.''

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