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Futuristic fridges

13 May 2005

The University is committed to making the results of its research as widely available as possible. As an incentive to encourage more articles, we devised a writing competition with cash prizes. This article by Judith Evans was the Enterprise Winner.

It is often a chance remark or fleeting thought that triggers the best ideas. Early in 2000 whilst chatting to friends in his local pub Ian Wood heard the landlord agonising about how he was going to cater for a wedding party that weekend. “How am I going to keep the champagne chilled, the dessert frozen and the cheese at just the right temperature with only the one fridge?”, he was worrying. It was only later, when Ian thought about what had been said, that he began to consider the problem: was there really no way that someone could maintain several foods at their ideal conditions within one fridge?  Further research indicated that this was true; no one currently produced such a fridge. It also became clear to Ian that most refrigerators had an inherent design flaw: when the door was opened all the cold air fell out and was replaced by warm ambient air.

By combining these ideas Ian came up with the concept of ‘VariCool’, a refrigerator that would store food within four separate, independently controlled drawers that when opened would keep the cold air inside. Each drawer could operate at a different temperature, allowing users flexibility between chilled, frozen or ambient storage. The drawers would also be fully insulated to prevent airborne contamination of odours or bacteria, and a data-logging system would record temperatures for comprehensive due diligence and food safety records. Further ideas quickly followed. Not only would each drawer have its own micro-climate, it could also be removed and used as an insulated box, enabling food to be maintained at the correct temperature during storage or transport. After initial discussions with local caterers Ian was sure his idea was a winner. Further-more, he could see other markets for the unit in the storage of biomedical, domestic and supermarket goods.

“How am I going to keep the champagne chilled, the dessert frozen and the cheese at just the right temperature with only the one fridge?”

Ian Wood was MD of Allied Design and Engineering, a small offshore gas consultancy in Lowestoft. With work in the offshore gas industry reducing, the company needed a new focus. Reborn as Adande Refrigeration and funded by the directors and a bank loan, the process of developing VariCool began. Realising that technical guidance was essential to develop the equipment, Ian sought professional help and quickly teamed up with Judith Evans, a refrigeration expert in the Food Refrigeration and Process Engineering Research Centre, within the Faculty of Engineering at Bristol University.

Early discussions and consultancy advice confirmed that VariCool was a viable idea, but rapidly identified that this was not a short-term project and that several years’ development would be required to produce a commercial piece of equipment. Judith suggested applying for a Teaching Company Scheme (now called Knowledge Transfer Partnership), a government-backed scheme whereby companies can obtain help from research providers, and partial funding would be given to employ a recent graduate for up to two years.

Within six months the funding was approved and a graduate employed at Adande. Work began immediately to develop the first VariCool unit, with staff from the University travelling to Adande on a regular basis to help and advise on developments. The Mark I unit was based on a conventional refrigeration system as, at this stage, the main development work was focused on the design of the drawers and control of the system. During the scheme three Mark I units were built, installed in catering premises and tested to determine how well they operated in a busy commercial kitchen. Since the end of the scheme the Mark I unit has been further developed and is now being produced and sold by Adande.

This is a project that began with a chance encounter

Design of the Mark II is currently being patented. Based around a novel refrigeration system using capillary tube expansion and a low-pressure receiver, this unit has also undergone extensive testing and development and is about to be produced commercially. This unit has advantages over the Mark I in terms of reduced production costs, ease of manufacture and improved performance. Since the end of the scheme in November 2003 Adande has developed further models while still maintaining links with Judith Evans and her group for ongoing advice and independent testing. The new VariCool units include models with a variable number of drawers, slim-line units and units with varied drawer sizes suitable for differing product requirements.

Adande has grown very rapidly over the past year, expanding from five to 15 employees as production and sales have commenced. The graduate employed on the government scheme became an essential member of the development team and has since been recruited by Adande. Development of the product and the identification of potential markets directly contributed to the company securing substantial second round Venture Capital funding.

This is a project that began with a chance encounter that developed through the determination, enterprise and dedication of Adande and the team at the University’s Food Refrigeration and Process Engineering Research Centre. Together they turned VariCool into a successful commercial product. Subsequently VariCool has been awarded the European Award for Distinguished Development Design 2003, and the government scheme managers identified as it as one of the top schemes from 2004.

Judith won a state-of-the-art Toshiba PDA with wifi, generously donated by Hewlett Packard.

Judith Evans/Food Refrigeration and Process Engineering Research Centre

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