A Human-Powered Refrigeration System To Save Lives In Developing Countries

It’s a big enough feat to ship much-needed vaccines to rural areas of the developing world. Finding a way to keep those vaccines refrigerated in places that have spotty access to electricity? An even bigger accomplishment. Rogers Feng, a mechanical engineering student at Northwestern University, has come up with a way to make the latter issue a bit easier to deal with.

His invention, the Human-Powered Refrigeration System for Developing Nation Vaccine Field Distribution, was announced this month as the U.S. winner of the James Dyson Award.

Feng attributes his idea to a friend who heard about the problem of keeping vaccines refrigerated in developing nations. The friend didn’t have time to pursue a project, so Feng ran with it. His creation: a refrigerator that can be charged with a hand crank. The crank powers a DC generator that in turn juices up a nine-volt rechargeable lithium ion battery. The battery then powers a Peltier unit to generate thermoelectric cooling.

According to Feng, there are three big advantages to the refrigerator over its developing-world competitors: It has circuitry to prevent sudden drops in temperature (these can destroy vaccines), it lacks toxic refrigerant fluids, and it’s relatively cheap–Feng tells us that he spent $150 on the unit, but that it would cost approximately $50 with scaled-up production.

Feng doesn’t have any immediate plans to commercialize the device, but he does plan to talk to companies that work at the intersection of health care and design. “Right now my main focus is graduating a quarter early and finding a job,” says the rising college senior.

Armed with a $1,400 prize for winning the U.S. competition, Feng is now a competitor in the international James Dyson competition. The winner will be announced in November.AS