E&T Innovation Awards: F1 culture keeps cabinets chilled

The amount of energy wasted can send shivers down your spine – particularly if you are walking past a badly designed supermarket refrigeration unit. It can be a chilly experience! This particular problem was addressed by Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy, who together developed F1-inspired aerofoil shelf-edge technology to keep the cold air within the fridge and thus save energy. The project has been a huge success and won an E&T Innovation Award in 2020. Tim Fryer spoke to Matthew Burke, Williams Advanced Engineering’s head of technology ventures, to talk about the technology and the impact it has made.

Tim Fryer: First of all, could you outline the problem that this technology was intended to counter. A lot of energy was going into supermarket refrigeration units, wasn’t it?

Matthew Burke: That is correct. In a typical supermarket about 50 per cent of its energy consumption is for refrigeration. And you’ll be familiar in supermarkets when you buy milk and dairy products that the fridge is generally open-fronted so that you’ve got easy access to browse products. They work on the basis of a cold air curtain that blows cold air from the top of the fridge to the bottom, which is retrieved and recooled and that process is repeated – so that cold air curtain provides a separation between the store ambient conditions and the product that’s sitting on the fridge shelves.

One of the issues is that the cold air spills into the aisles and it makes the aisles cold. More importantly, it means that the fridges have to work harder to keep products cool. So the problem that we were looking to solve was to reduce the amount of cold air spilled into the aisles and therefore reduce the fridge’s energy consumption. The retail grocers typically spend hundreds of millions of pounds on electricity each year, and if 50 per cent of your store’s electricity bill is due to refrigeration, then technologies that can reduce that cold out-spill have a big impact on the operating costs of the retailers.

TF: I believe that the idea was originated back in 2014 by a start-up company called Aerofoil Energy. How did you come to meet them?

MB: At Williams we develop technologies in-house ourselves, but we also look outside, and we look for companies developing innovative, scalable and defensible technologies. Aerofoil Energy was scouted through the scouting networks that we’ve established. At the time they were still very early on in in terms of the development of the technology. We could see a really good fit between applying our skills particularly in the area of aerodynamics, to help to optimise the design and help take it to market faster, along with Aerofoil Energy.

What we’ve done is taken the principles of an aerofoil and applied it into the context of a fridge. I mentioned the cold air curtain earlier, which is a stream of cold air that goes from the top to the bottom of the fridge. What we try to do is reduce the amount of cold air spill, and we achieve this by introducing an aerofoil-shaped blade which sits just proud of the front of each shelf on the fridge. As the air passes over that blade, the cold air just gets turned back into the inside of the fridge causing turbulence and that means we end up with a more cohesive air curtain and less cold air spillage.

So what we did together was develop what we call ‘shelf edge technology’, which can then be applied to each shelf on the fridge and instantly reduce the energy consumption of the fridge.

TF: Presumably your experience with the aerodynamics of Formula 1 played an important role?

MB: It did and I think that’s one of the opportunities we saw, as we looked at this as an aerodynamic problem first and foremost. When we put a partnership in place with Aerofoil Energy we put our computational fluid dynamics (CFD) experts onto this. They modelled the fridge and ran simulations so we could understand how the air flowed within the fridge and how the aerofoil could improve and optimise the performance of the fridge.

TF: How did the aerofoil shelf-edge technology compare to incumbent refrigeration units in terms of performance, and did you meet your design objectives?

MB: Doing back-to-back testing in an ISO lab controlled test we saw performance gains of up to 35 per cent. So testing a fridge and an identical fridge with and without aerofoils, the aerofoil-equipped fridge would have up to 35 per cent less energy consumption.

When we translate that into a store environment – so once we started engaging with retailers and moving through that process of store trials – they would then conduct their own energy tests at the store level. We’d see those benefits still carry through but typically anywhere from 15 per cent up to 25 per cent. So still significant reductions in energy consumption.

TF: Were you involved just at the design stage or did you contribute to manufacturability or other work in a continued capacity?

MB: We started with focusing on the aerodynamics and using computational fluid dynamics to really understand the environment of the fridge and optimise the design of the shelf edge virtually.

Our design team then worked with the aerodynamicists to convert that into a manufacturable product that can be made in high volume. We prototyped and tested that back here at Williams. We set up a room where we installed a fridge to start looking at different profiles, different installation configurations, monitoring energy performance.

But we also worked with the company on securing the intellectual property to make sure that the IP was tightly secured around the aerofoil design and also engaging with the end customers, the retailers. So working together to demonstrate to them both why technology works through CFD, and proof of that through testing. It’s not just a technical partnership, but very much encompasses commercial and promotional opportunities as well.

TF: I believe this has been a huge success – can you give me an indication of how many aerofoils have been deployed? Are they all from Aerofoil Energy or have similar products emerged on the market?

MB: The aerofoil shelf technology is currently manufactured in the UK. To date I think about 1,750,000 aerofoils have been installed. Retailers such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda have effectively rolled out aerofoils across their estates and we are now exploring moving the technology into other international markets as well as we grow the opportunity.

I think about just under 5000 stores have actually had aerofoils fitted. We estimate over 300,000 tonnes of CO2 have been avoided through the installation of aerofoils.

TF: You won the award two years ago. What were the benefits to WAE and Aerofoil Energy for entering and winning the awards?

MB: For Williams Advanced Engineering in particular, it’s an endorsement of our commitment towards innovation and sustainability. You know, as a business, it’s very much at the heart of what we’re about. And for Aerofoil Energy it provides further credibility around the technology and products. It just helps accelerate the traction with the end customers, the retailers. There’s a level of assurance that they get by technologies that have received independent awards. So its been particularly valuable for us and for Aerofoil Energy.

TF: The category you won, Sustainable Planet, is that significant in the sort of work that WAE is involved in and would like to move towards?

MB: Very much. Williams Advanced Engineering is a leader in vehicle electrification. We have very well-developed battery technologies programmes that are used and in all forms of vehicle electrification from motorsport through to automotive through to off-highway.

In addition to that, we work in areas such as lightweight materials, and obviously we have to reduce the weight of, for instance, vehicles in aviation as well.More recently, we’re now with our new owners Fortescue Metals Group working towards helping them achieve a zero-carbon footprint for their operations, and for Fortescue Future Industries, helping them realise their goal of being a green hydrogen producer. We’re very much operating within that sustainable space across the business.

E&T Innovation Awards

2022 programme

The 2022 E&T Innovation are about to get under way – entries will be invited in April 2022. Keep an eye on the website:


Will this be the year you join Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy on the E&T Innovation Awards Roll of Honour?


Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles