Racing car engineers turn their attention to refrigerators

Formula One racing is the premier championship globally. While the focus is on state-of-the-art cars, at least one of the teams is using its technical understanding to improve the performance of commercial refrigerators. Malcolm Moore writes about latest developments in the Financial Times


Williams harnesses Formula One aerofoil technology for fridges

In a room at the back of a 38,000 sq ft engineering facility at the Oxfordshire headquarters of the Williams Formula One team is a supermarket fridge.

The plain white fridge is part of efforts by Williams to spread its technological nous and brand to money-spinning projects outside motor sport.

For a year, Williams engineers have been perfecting a thin strip of plastic, shaped as an aerofoil that attaches to shelves of the fridge.

The strip, which channels the flow of cool air and hinders its escape from the fridge, could save supermarkets tens of millions of pounds in electricity bills.

It was invented by Aerofoil Energy, a company called that then partnered with Williams Advanced Engineering, which commercialises F1 technology, to develop the product.

“I got an email from Williams saying they wanted to work with us and it had their F1 logo on it,” said Paul McAndrew at Aerofoil Energy. “When I spoke to them I said, ‘You do realise these are fridges’. They said they understood that and explained they had a department looking beyond F1.”

Mr McAndrew said Williams had used its supercomputing power to model how the cool air inside chiller cabinets behaved around the aerofoil.

“It looks very simple but it is very complicated in real life in terms of fluid dynamics,” said Ian Cluett, the head of Programmes and Commercial at Williams. “The way the fridge behaves is different when the shelves are full or empty and when people put their hands in and out of the flow.”

A refined system will be released in January but Sainsbury’s, the supermarket chain, has already had a successful store trial and is now rolling out the strips more widely before deciding on whether to have them in all of its stores.

Mr McAndrew said eight of the top 10 supermarkets are considering the product and that they could expand into Africa, China and the US. Depending on the depth of the fridge, he estimates an energy saving of 10-32 per cent from the plastic strips.

“If you are talking Asda, Sainsbury, Tesco, that could be multi millions of savings,” he said. “With every retailer we have approached, we haven’t had anyone who hasn’t wanted to hear more and that’s probably down to the Williams brand,” he added.

Elsewhere in its 150-strong research department, Williams spends half of its resources working on electric and hybrid cars for the likes of Aston Martin and Jaguar. It designs the batteries for the Formula E electric racing series and will continue to be the main supplier for two more seasons after this year.

In August, Williams Advanced Engineering won a £17m contract to design the power and data systems for the British Army’s Scout medium weight armoured vehicles. The company said it was drawing on its expertise in logging and analysing data from its F1 cars during races.

In the half-year to September, Williams Advanced Engineering’s revenues rose 39 per cent to £10.9m and its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation was £1m.

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