Here's Why Formula One Engineering Is Invading Supermarket Aisles

by Paul McAndrew
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Airfoils can direct air to keep shelves cooler and customers warmer.

They suck airplanes up into the sky. They help race cars speed around tight corners. And now airfoils are coming to the fridge aisle.


Researchers at Williams Advanced Engineering in the U.K. have announced they are preparing to roll out a new kind of airfoil in supermarkets across Europe. Working with a team of researchers at Aerofoil™ Energy Ltd., the Formula One engineers have developed an energy-saving attachment for the front edge of open-air fridges.

Keeping products cold can eat up as much as 40% of a supermarket’s energy bill, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star, and open fridges typically consume about 1.3 times more energy than doored displays. That’s because most open-air supermarket cases distribute cold with a front-end ‘curtain’ system: chilled air is blown from top of the fridge down to the bottom along the front of the case. The efficiency of the fridge depends on two key factors: The geometry of the fridge (including the angle of that air curtain) and the fluid dynamics of the air system.

Mazyar Amin, an assistant mechanical engineering professor at Miami University who has researched the best ways to keep these kinds of fridges cool says a lot of the cold air ends up spilling out of the fridge and getting wasted (often on freezing customers). Basically, the airfoil acts as a barrier, pushing more of the cold air back into the fridge, preventing it from mixing with warm air in the store. Williams Advanced Engineering’s spoiler performed well in initial testing, cutting store energy costs by 25% or more.

Several thousand of the devices are being tested at big grocery chains in the UK and Europe like Sainsbury’s. Williams expects to start selling the airfoils in the U.S. in 2016. The new devices would arrive just as U.S. supermarkets and restaurants prepare to comply with stricter refrigeration standards coming in March of 2017 . The company won’t say how much they cost, but claim the airfoils pay for themselves in store energy savings in less than 2 years (and make trips to the grocery store just a little warmer, too).

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