Creativity for a Cause

Author: L.T.T.
Student design could save lives in developing countries

When vaccines are transported to remote villages in developing countries, as much as 60 percent of the medicine is spoiled before it gets to its destination. That means lives that could have been saved are being lost. There is a solution.

During spring semester 2008, a team of three Purdue mechanical engineering seniors and four students from GEARE partner Karlsruhe University in Germany put their minds to this medical matter and designed what they have dubbed the vaccine cooler. The concept was developed within the team’s senior global design course, which requires student teams to come up with engineering designs based on their four years of study.

The team started from scratch knowing only that their project would relate to their interest in heating and cooling systems. They tossed a variety of ideas around and
initially settled on a portable refrigerator box designed to cool beverages. Later, they chose a more humanitarian application. They designed a mobile cooling box for use in the final stage of the vaccine transport process—the trip from the plane to a village—which can take up to five days. The initiative was funded by a humanitarian project grant from Shell Oil Company.

“What we found was a project that used cooling technology and could benefit a great deal of people,” says team leader Laura Palac. The device—about the size of a picnic cooler—has an internal cooling system that runs on a low-power battery. Vaccines must be kept at a stable temperature between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius. Most are currently transported on ice, which can both freeze and destroy the medicine or melt and render it useless.

Vaccine Cooler Team (from left): Philipp Danecker, Malte Brkelmann, Benjamin Borgmann, Kimberly Dietz, Bernhard Grieser, Professor Eckhard Groll, and Laura Palac. (Not pictured: Florian Trk.)

When the destination is reached the vaccines require storage in refrigerators that need a power source to operate. The ME team’s design allows for steady temperatures and has its own power supply.

The team’s cooling system uses absorption technology based on ammonia and activated carbon. Air is circulated in the cooler via a fan driven by a battery that can be recharged using solar power. The cooler, which can store 30 vaccine packages, could be produced at a relatively low cost using commonly available materials.

While the vaccine cooler project called on mechanical engineering skills, it also introduced the team to real world challenges, such as constraints on the design imposed by World Health Organization specifications on how vaccines are transported. The seniors explored that topic as well as more familiar areas such as basic structure, heat exchange, temperature control, and cost issues.

Ben Borgmann says the experience was not only instructive but good for the heart. “Engineering is not all about working on fast cars. You can reach out to a lot of people. It’s pretty cool to see,” he says.

The vaccine cooler project was awarded second place in the first annual Innovation in Mechanical Engineering Award sponsored by Thomas J. and Sandra H. Malott. The team received a $750 cash award. With the semester over, the vaccine cooler project came to an end. Eckhard Groll, the ME professor advising the group, says he would like to see another senior design team continue to work on it, with the hope of some day getting the technology out in the field.