With origins in developing advanced flywheel energy storage for vehicle applications, Williams Hybrid Power (WHP) was formed in 2008 when Williams F1 took a stake. WHP is developing a version of its flywheel system for use in Williams F1’s Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) to be introduced in its Formula One cars in 2009. Ian Foley is WHP’s Managing Director. just-auto editor Dave Leggett interviewed him for Lotus Engineering's newsletter, proActive.

Please note that this interview was first published in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue (number 30) of proActive.

DL: Can you explain the background to the company?

IF: Yes, it was formed to develop flywheel energy storage systems and the initial focus was on the Williams system for the Formula One car the 2009 season, but the aim of the company is to take the technology that has been developed for that and apply it in other areas – both automotive and non-automotive.

DL: How did the Formula One connection come about?

IF: About two years ago the FIA announced that hybrid-type systems would be allowed from 2009 and those systems were going to be limited by the regulations to about 60kW maximum power or 400kJ per lap, which effectively means 60kW for about 6 seconds. That’s just about enough to allow an overtaking manoeuvre that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. So, the FIA specified the overall performance parameters but the technology was otherwise open so it’s up to teams to search around for the best technology. We approached Williams and Williams agreed that we had a promising technology and we took it from there.

DL: Are all the Formula One teams investigating similar technologies?

IF: They are all introducing hybrid systems of some sort. Exactly what they are doing and what technologies they have chosen, we don’t yet know. I think we will see lots of battery systems out there – probably with lithium-ion batteries, maybe some super-capacitor systems and maybe a mechanical flywheel system and obviously Williams will have the WHP electrically powered flywheel system.

DL: And the development of your system for Williams is all going according to plan?

IF: Yes, we have started car testing. It’s a very short timescale, even by Formula One standards, to reliably develop a whole new technology for a car, and we are in the middle of a very intensive development programme.

DL: And the drivers are testing it out?
IF: Yes, we’re in the early stages of that and it’s all new to the drivers. The actuation of the system or the calling up of the 60kW for an overtaking manoeuvre is going to be under the control of the driver – he’ll push a button for that to happen. But the recharging of the system will happen automatically.
DL: Do you think it will make a big difference to performance and make the sport more exciting?

IF: Yes. The idea was that in overall lap-time terms there wouldn’t be a huge difference – maybe of the order of 0.2 seconds a lap - but hopefully the big difference will come from the system giving enough power to execute an overtaking manoeuvre that maybe wouldn’t have happened before. So it should generate more overtaking which will hopefully make the racing more exciting.

DL: What’s the set-up, in terms of resource, at WHP? How many people are there and what are they doing?
IF: There are five people here. There’s a software engineer, a couple of mechanical engineers, myself and the original inventor of the system, Colin Tarrant. Right now we are fully focused on developing a Formula One system for next year. But we are also in discussions with a large number of companies about spin-offs.
DL: Could you sell your system to other Formula One teams?
IF: Who knows what may happen in the future, but our efforts at the moment are solely for the Williams team next year.

DL: What about the potential crossover for your technology to mass-market automotive applications – how realistic is that?
IF: It’s a very realistic possibility. At the moment, the main focus on hybrids for the automotive industry is on battery systems but they are very expensive to manufacture. Also, the fundamental problem with all battery technologies at the moment is that if you continually deep cycle the batteries, the life is very short. The key unique feature of our technology is that you can continually deep cycle - discharge and recharge the flywheel – all day long and it will have a ten-year life.
Additionally, the manufacturing techniques needed to scale-up for mass production are all existing techniques. It’s effectively a large electric motor and therefore can be manufactured cost-effectively in volume. We can possibly occupy a niche in the hybrid sector where you want to charge and discharge the energy storage regularly at a deep level, and therefore it can be smaller overall than a corresponding battery system.
Technically, I think we can solve a number of the problems which are preventing or slowing down the adoption of battery hybrids, but obviously we need to convince the car industry of the benefits – and putting our system on a Formula One car is a great way to demonstrate it.

DL: And if the technology migrates to mass-market road cars, where’s the benefit to the driver – is it in greater fuel efficiency or is it enhanced power on tap and the ability to overtake quicker?
IF: It can effectively be both. One benefit from having a device that can give a short-term burst is that you can downsize the engine and therefore get greater fuel efficiency from the engine while maintaining transient performance. So, for example a 2.5-litre car only needs a fraction of that power to cruise along at 70mph but when the driver wants to put his foot down to overtake, he wants the power for a relatively short amount of time.

This is one area where this technology is particularly suited. So we could see hybrid high-performance cars with much smaller engines but with a flywheel system able to deliver sufficient transient power with much greater fuel efficiency.

DL: How would this technology migrate to road cars? Would you work with engineers in the car companies, Tier 1 suppliers, other companies? How would it happen?

IF: It is very early days but we are at the stage of discussing with car companies and also Tier 1s the viability issues. There are obviously a number of steps to go through to get to there from being a prototype manufacturer with some machines on a Formula One car through to tens or hundreds of thousands a year on a road car. There would need to be a development programme to modify the design in order to make it suitable for mass production, validate that in the field and then eventually get it into production.

At the moment there are a huge array of technologies and a lot of people in the frame trying to occupy the same space in the market that we are. We will be looking to work with car companies and Tier 1 suppliers to get to the prototype validation phase in a road car application and then be working with an existing mass-market manufacturer – possibly someone already making electric motors – to work on getting the product manufactured cost-effectively in volume.

DL: How long do you think it might be before a customer could go into a showroom and buy a car fitted with your flywheel hybrid system?
IF: There is a lot of industry interest and we do anticipate that development programmes will be starting soon on road car applications. It depends a lot on the political drivers for low carbon vehicles and also the pull from customers on the demand side. From where we are currently, it could be possible in a five-year time-frame. Obviously, the current economic circumstances make it a lot more difficult, but companies have to think of the future and the climate change problem isn’t going to go away. Ultimately, it depends on the motivations of the manufacturers and how much money they have got to spend.

DL: And there is solid interest?

IF: Yes. I think there is always what might be termed healthy scepticism when someone comes in with a new technology. There are a lot of technology companies generally that make claims that they cannot substantiate. Our focus has been to be able to demonstrate our system and technology on a Formula One car.

DL: Do you think WHP could be spun-off eventually?

IF: Maybe, who knows? The point of WHP being a separate company and not simply a part of Williams (a minority stakeholder) is to develop the flywheel business as a business. A lot of my focus going forward will be evaluating new business opportunities and which ones – both inside and outside the automotive sector – we should be focusing on.

We are looking at various niche markets and talking to people to develop products for those markets. I anticipate that within the next few months we will sign up a few of those and have a few projects running concurrently.

DL: What niche applications does the flywheel technology suit?

IF: Our competitive strength is the ability to deep cycle continually with no loss of performance. For instance, in the case of large, heavy vehicles continually stopping and starting,we are likely to be able to make significant fuel savings and lower emissions. It’s really anywhere here you have lots of energy being continually cycled up and down.

DL: What do you see as the main business challenge going forward?

IF: The main challenge is to take the business from being a five-man business focusing mainly on a single product for Williams and manage growth to new projects and new customers, while also not losing focus on existing customers. I think expansion will present its own challenges.

DL: What drives you, personally?

IF: I have always been fascinated by new technology. I was responsible for the development of the active suspension system at Lotus that we raced in 1992 and 1993 – interestingly, we were soundly beaten by Williams’ active suspension system back then!

There is, of course, an immense challenge in taking a new technology and making a business out of it, but I have always been fascinated by new technology and that is something that very much inspires me at WHP.

For more on Williams Hybrid Power and its powered flywheel technology, visit the WHP website.


Ian Foley

Ian Foley has a BSc degree in Electronic Engineering, and an MSc in Control Systems. Ian has a proven track record in the successful development of new technologies. After being responsible for the development of the Lotus Active Suspension system raced by Team Lotus in Formula 1 in 1993, Ian set up his own consultancy and has successfully developed control systems in the power and racing industries. Having identified the substantial potential for the application of the MLC flywheel technology to the automotive sector, Ian set up Automotive Hybrid Power in 2006, which became Williams Hybrid Power Ltd in March 2008.

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