A cold wind is whipping past, but the engineers scurrying around the giant room don’t seem to mind. They’re busy moving a fishing rod-like smoke wand this way and that, watching vaporized mineral oil stream off its tip and flow like a contrail over the sleekest semi you’ve ever seen.
The engineers call this space “the 80-by-120;” it’s the largest wind tunnel on the planet, 80 feet tall and 120 feet wide, big enough to hold a Boeing 737, the star of the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex in Mountain View, California. The truck is Navistar’s “Catalist,” a concept built to cut drag and boost fuel efficiency. The 80-by-120 is one of the few places that can really put the new design to the test.
Sitting on the western edge of NASA’s Ames Research Center, the 80-by-120 blows through superlatives. It is its own biggest fan. It’s always in heavy rotation. This isn’t just spin! Its six turbines—40 feet wide, each powered by a 22,500-horsepower motor—can hit 180 rotations per minute, generating 110 mph winds in the tunnel and moving 60 tons of air every second. At that speed, they guzzle 106 megawatts of electricity—enough to power a town of 100,000 people.