Over the past month or so we have been sharing stories behind some of the winning projects from the 2017 Creative Conscience Awards. Up next is Emma Kennedy Flanagan, awarded silver in the Product & Structural Design category.
As a third year product design student at Brunel University, I was looking for ideas for my major project. Through some initial research, I found out that vaccine wastage was a huge issue in the developing world. It has been estimated that more than 50% of vaccines have to be thrown away and so I wondered if there was something that I could do to help with this problem. I contacted various charities who worked in this field and they explained to me where the weaknesses in the current cold chain lie. From this, I identified that there was opportunity for an improved product that didn’t require electricity to maintain the required temperatures for an extended period.
Vac³ (Vac-Cube) is a vaccine cool box which does not require the use of ice packs or electricity, cooled using only a hand vacuum pump. To maintain their effectiveness, vaccines must be kept between 2–8°C. Vac³ is cooled using a hand vacuum pump, once a day, to produce a cooling effect through evaporative cooling. Instead of ice packs, a tank of water is used, as it is readily available, non toxic and will cause no environmental problems if the liquid leaks. Water has a boiling point of 100°C at atmospheric pressure, however, if the pressure is reduced to about 1% of normal atmospheric pressure then water boils at less than room temperature, and the water within the coolbox will, through evaporative cooling, reach a low temperature around 4°C. The water tank can be topped up so the cooling can be repeated indefinitely, whereas an ice pack can only be replaced if you have access to a freezer. Using this vacuum pump, the temperature can be maintained indefinitely. The design is also improved by using vacuum insulated panels which provide better insulation than traditional polystyrene.
My communications with charities highlighted the problems with the existing technology, both technical and human centred. I identified that the main cause of vaccine loss was due to the improper use of ice packs, the failure of electrical supplies at the point of use and the limitations of the existing insulation.
The combination of evaporative cooling and the use of use of vacuum insulted panels results in a product with increased storage capacity (4.7L compared to 1.6L in traditional coolboxes). It does not require the use of electricity in order to store the vaccines over an extended period of time. It does not contain any toxic materials which may leak if the box is damaged unlike ammonia fridge-type coolers. The LCD screen on the outside of the box shows the temperature inside. With current boxes, they must be opened in order to check the temperature, exposing the vaccines to the warm outside air. Vac³ does not require the use of ice packs which frees up freezer space at distribution centres and workers time. It also reduces the chance of the vaccines freezing which occurs when workers place ice packs which are too cold into the coolers. Just by transporting one load of vaccines, there is the potential for the coolbox to pay for itself.