Having the Small Business Development Center at Bucknell provides us with a list of people looking for solutions, while giving students an opportunity to learn what's going on in the real world and how to solve real problems.

In 1995, an 87-ton spillway gate at Folsom Dam failed in about 15 seconds, sending two-thirds of the Sacramento water supply gushing into the San Francisco Bay. "Fortunately, the gate was opened early in morning and there was no loss of life," says Chuck Knisely, professor of mechanical engineering and alumnus of the Class of '75.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed a forensic study on the incident, but Knisely -- who researches flow-induced vibrations of hydraulic gates on rivers -- says the agency's conclusions conflict with the gate operator's observation of rumbling and vibration just prior to the failure. Knisely and colleagues in Japan have spent more than a decade since researching the failure. Through scale model testing, equations, theoretical modeling and testing on full-scale gates, the team determined that the Folsom accident was a result of dynamic instability due to the gate's design.

"The gate is designed to close when a sudden increase in the upstream reservoir level occurs. However, this same design characteristic makes the gate susceptible to flow-induced vibrations, which we believe ultimately led to the failure," says Knisely. "We have ideas for retrofitting similar gates to avoid future failures, but there are several thousand of these radial gates in the world. The gate owners and oversight agencies are somewhat hesitant to implement the changes -- the retrofits would be expensive."

Folsom Dam is not his only area of interest. Knisely says he's more of a general practitioner, not a specialist, when it comes to engineering, and that he likes to apply problem-solving methodologies to a variety of situations. Those situations include how to trailer a 35-foot sailboat with a 60-foot mast -- a question submitted to the Small Business Development Center by a local man.

"The idea for a foldable mast came to me one night," says Knisely. "We got a group of students together and tested it, manufactured a prototype and wrote the patent for it. Having the Small Business Development Center at Bucknell provides us with a list of people looking for solutions, while giving students an opportunity to learn what's going on in the real world and how to solve real problems."

Posted March 28, 2012

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