Crash Test Smarties

A partnership with an Italian sports car maker launches fast times at UW engineering.

By Karen Quinn November 19, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Seattle Met

WHEN THE UNIVERSITY of Washington department of aeronautics and astronautics forged a partnership with Lamborghini this fall, being a UW engineering student got a whole lot cooler. Professor Paolo Feraboli, a former engineer for the Italian automaker, proposed a cooperative effort by UW engineering, Lamborghini, and Boeing (which has helped fund UW’s aerospace program for almost a century) to develop and test advanced carbon fiber materials that will be used in future models of Boeing’s commercial airliners and Lamborghini’s cars.

Using a multimillion-dollar grant made by Lamborghini, the University of Washington built a new laboratory (dubbed “Lamborghini Lab”) and equipped it with an arsenal of gadgets straight out of an episode of Mythbusters. A lightning-strike generator zaps carbon fiber models with 100,000 amps of electricity to simulate a jet in a thunderstorm; a crash sled mimics a 3,000-pound car slamming into a concrete block at 50 miles per hour; and two cannons shoot objects like simulated birds and pieces of hail (and golf balls, just for fun) at 700 miles per hour at the test materials. “This is where we make and break a lot of things,” says graduate research assistant Bonnie Wade, casually laying her hand on what looks like a giant gun pointed at a sheet of carbon fiber.

For Wade, understanding the manufacturing characteristics of carbon atoms woven together is the easy stuff. She’s just worried that her Italian won’t be sufficient if she gets to spend next summer working at the Lamborghini factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese.

Professor Feraboli laughs at this. “They work really, really, really, really hard,” he says. But they also get to ride in cutting-edge, million-dollar sports cars in Italy and smash makeshift plane parts all day, so we don’t really feel bad for them.

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