Gates-backed device extends cold chain to rural areas

The lack of reliable cold chain infrastructure is a major obstacle to delivery of effective vaccines in developing countries. Just last week, an Indian official warned that a Unicef-backed storage project is failing to keep vaccines cool, and some areas lack even ineffective cold chain infrastructure.

Bill Gates recognized how these weaknesses could minimize the impact of investments in new vaccines and challenged Intellectual Ventures to tackle the problem. Five years later, Intellectual Ventures is testing a device that can keep vaccines cool without power for 60 days, depending on outside temperature and humidity. The device improves on current systems--which are only effective for 5 days--by applying space-age technology to the vacuum flask concept Sir James Dewar invented in 1892.

Project leader Kurt Armbruster told Fast Company: "It's a super-insulated, double-walled dewar that holds the vaccine and ice in the middle in an inner bottle. A vacuum space separates it from the outer bottle, like a large coffee thermos." The vacuum space is filled with layers of insulation used to protect spacecraft from high temperatures. Sensors and SMS capabilities are included in the $1,100 device to enable remote monitoring of its location, interior and exterior temperature, and how long it has been opened.

In field tests in Senegal, this feedback allowed researchers to identify when the device was being misused. After spotting such a problem, the team could initiate retraining. The pilot project also gathered feedback from users, and Armbruster's team is using these comments to tweak the design. New versions will come with a lock to protect the valuable vaccines and will be green, because users link the color to pharmacies. The devices are set to undergo further testing in Senegal, as well as in Ethiopia, Zambia, and possibly Haiti. Villages of 5,000 to 15,000 people are the sweet spot for the device, Armbruster said, because bigger rural towns are better served by solar-powered or ice-lined fridges.

- read the Fast Company article