Page last updated at 14:34 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

F1 tech races into ordinary life

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News website


How F1 technology works in ordinary life

A new exhibition demonstrating how technology from Formula One racing influences more pedestrian pursuits has opened at the Science Museum in London.

It includes examples ranging from an F1-inspired wheelchair to non-slip boots and hi-tech fishing line.

As the exhibition demonstrates, the safety features, tyre design and even organisation of pit crews have a far-reaching effect on everyday life.

The exhibition will run until 05 March 2010.

Speaking at the launch, McLaren chief executive Ron Dennis said that the exhibition was not solely a chance to reflect on the innovations from Formula One.

"The most powerful role to be played is to inspire the next generation of Britons to embrace science, technology and engineering to innovate and provide answers to the challenges of tomorrow," he said.

Many of the objects and technologies on show have been developed in collaboration with Formula One experts, rather than just borrowing the ideas wholesale.

"Formula One engineers - like many engineers - really have a driving spirit about problem solving," said Katie Maggs, curator of the exhibition, titled Fast Forward: 20 ways F1 is changing our world.

"They're people who have a real expertise that are then being invited to work on a project and really applying that expertise to a different field to solve a problem."

Carbon copies

F1-inspired wheelchair
The new wheelchair mimics the 'monocoque' design of an F1 cockpit

One of the principal advances in technology that Formula One has inspired is the regular use of carbon fibre - famed for its strength-to-weight ratio.

Carbon fibre now makes up the whole of Formula One cars' "monocoques" - the shell that safely encloses drivers.

The material properties of carbon fibre mean that its structural support is provided from its outside surface, rather than from a stiff internal frame.

While carbon fibre was used in the aerospace industry with mixed results from the 1960s onwards, it triggered a revolution in racing when UK engineer John Barnard joined McLaren and designed the first carbon-fibre composite monocoque in 1981.

Not only was it a design to trickle throughout the racing industry as standard, it has also inspired a number of designs that are on display at the Science Museum.

A carbon-fibre wheelchair, for example, envelops its passenger in a custom-fit, monocoque-inspired design that is as light yet strong as its racing counterpart.

A smaller monocoque is evident in the BabyPod, a tough carbon-fibre transport vehicle designed to, for example, transfer infants from hospital to helicopter and back.

BabyPod carbon fibre transporter
The BabyPod protects infants with the same one-piece design known to F1 engineers

Apart from a monocoque structure, carbon fibre can lend its incredible strength to other applications. For design buffs, John Barnard has gone on to design a carbon-fibre dining table, 4m long and just 2mm thick at its edge.

McLaren Applied Technologies, a spin-out company of the racing team with whom the Science Museum has collaborated on the exhibition, also has its work on display.

Their projects include a leg brace designed to absorb impact that can over time damage knees. A testament to F1's expertise in biomechanics, the brace is already in use by the US military.

The firm is also working to develop carbon-fibre composite seats for military vehicles to absorb the impact of mine explosions.


Surgical team
The move from the theatre to intensive care can be fraught with difficulties

However, not all of the innovations on display have to do with tangible technologies.

Doctors from the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London contacted the Ferrari and McLaren F1 teams in the hopes learning from the tight organisation of their pit crews.

In a video analysis of the handover from the operating theatre to the intensive care unit, the pit teams worked with doctors to make the process more efficient and less error-prone.

"The doctors really believed they were doing everything to the best of their ability, but watching it with the pit crew teams, seeing how they manage their routines, they were really surprised," said Ms Maggs.

"They used to find small errors that can eventually amplify into real problems," she added.

"By working with the F1 teams, they managed to reduce the technical errors and the information communication errors by 40%. They've completely changed their process; now it's really streamlined."

The everyday

Beyond high-performance dining tables and surgical teams, there are also spin-offs of F1 technology that are likely to touch our lives in more subtle ways.

Non-slip boot wearers
Fast on their feet: non slip boots from track to factory floor

The abandonment of "slicks" - tyres without grooves - in Formula One for a decade led to great leaps in tyre design that are now seeing application elsewhere.

On one hand, F1 tyre design has gone on to inspire the manufacture of incredibly effective non-slip boots.

On another, the attempts to reduce the amount of rubber in contact with the track has led to the design of fishing line with a star-shaped cross-section, reducing drag on the fishing pole's guides and allowing anglers to cast further.

Perhaps the most practical item on display at the exhibition, however, is a simple fitting for a boiler. Formula One engine oil filters use strong magnets to pull iron and magnetite out of the oil that could damage the precision-milled surfaces of the engine.

At home, similar particles clog up boilers and radiators, so an in-line filter employing the same technology has been developed and is already available.

As a result, says Katie Maggs, "your radiator is far more efficient and helps you reduce energy consumption.

"It just goes to show that this technology transfer really does affect the common man or woman."

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