The Cold Chain Innovates to Meet Post-COVID Demands

COVID-19 vaccine logistics have highlighted the value and challenges of the cold chain. Manufacturers must balance performance with improved sustainability.

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lab freezer cold chain storage
Much of a lab freezer's performance is tied to its ability to recover temperature after multiple door openings. Credit: Ton_aquatic, Choksawatdikorn/ Science Photo Library/ Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on many aspects of drug and vaccine R&D, not least the critical importance of the cold chain — the ultra-low temperature storage essential to vaccine production and distribution.

For cold storage manufacturers, the challenge was to increase production while maintaining quality standards required for ultra-low freezers storing valuable vaccine reagents and products. That fundamental challenge remains even as the COVID-19 crisis abates.

"COVID-19 put production pressure on our industry during the pandemic," says Joe LaPorte, chief innovation officer of laboratory equipment specialist PHC Corporation of North America (PHCNA). "But there's also been a lasting effect on demand. The first change is an increased focus on mRNA therapeutics, which require ultra-low freezers for various steps in production. The second is an acceleration towards decentralized clinical trials. This not only increases demand for large, ultra-low freezers, but decentralization into smaller clinics requires ultra-low freezers that fit into smaller spaces."

Balancing performance with sustainability

This increased demand for cold chain manufacturing is set against a backdrop of driving down power consumption as awareness grows of lab refrigeration’s intense energy use.

"Five years ago, most end-users didn’t know the energy consumption of ultra-low freezers, but they can use as much power as a medium-sized household," says LaPorte.

The regulatory landscape for cold storage is also evolving, with the phasing out of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants linked to global warming - first through the European Union's F-gas regulations and more recently the American Innovation in Manufacturing Act (AIM Act).

Of course, sustainability has to be balanced against product performance. "Luckily, the market has already moved towards more sustainable refrigerants for improved efficiency, but there's a sharp focus on further reducing energy consumption," says LaPorte. "As a manufacturer, you have to be careful not to reduce a product’s performance, or its ability to recover temperature quickly."

Natural refrigerant hydrocarbons such as ethane, butane and propane have enabled more sustainable products that perform better in terms of uniformity and recovery. But they are highly flammable, and regulators limit their use to maintain safety margins. Hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) may emerge as alternative refrigerants due to their lower flammability.

Improving energy efficiency

As global consumers demand lower energy consumption and higher efficiency from household appliances, manufacturers have been adapting innovations from home refrigeration appliances, such as variable speed compressors, to ultra-low biomedical storage applications.

"A traditional compressor in an old home fridge would turn on, run to full speed and turn off once the appliance reaches temperature," explains LaPorte. "But in today's appliances, compressor speed and refrigerant use is prompted by demand. This means we can control compressor speed to cool a product down quicker, reducing energy consumption."

This provides several additional benefits, from reducing noise to improving product longevity because less refrigerant reduces stress on system components. By consuming less energy, these systems also emit less heat, cutting air conditioning costs for labs in hot climates.

In the US, the key certification for energy efficiency is the Energy Star standard, which expanded from consumer electronics into the laboratory equipment market when the California biomedical community realized how much energy its labs were using. LaPorte helped develop the standard in 2009, but says it is now due for a reset.

"In 2009, 40% of Stanford University's energy on campus was consumed by labs, and ultra-low freezers were identified as one of the larger sources of consumption," he recalls. "Since then, innovation has driven down energy consumption, making it easier to get Energy Star qualification. Ultra-low freezers consuming double the energy of leading products now qualify for Energy Star, whereas small ultra-low freezers have difficulty qualifying as there wasn’t a lot of baseline energy data available for them when the standard was created. Expanding Energy Star to include more products and give greater transparency about energy consumption would allow labs to make more meaningful comparisons."

Performance over presentation

Another key challenge for consumers comparing cold chain products is assessing reliability. When a freezer goes down, the consequences in time and costs are not limited to repair or replacement. In many cases the freezer must be revalidated for biomedical use and the product moved to another location, often during inopportune times.

In 2012, a freezer malfunction at a Harvard-affiliated hospital damaged a third of the world’s largest collection of donated brain tissue for autism studies, setting research back by as much as 10 years, according to one scientist.

"Many people don't pay attention to the performance of the freezer until something happens to it and they realize what’s stored in many cases can't be replaced," says LaPorte. "The reliability of the product is paramount."

Much of a freezer's day-to-day performance is related to uniformity - its ability to recover temperature after multiple door openings. So how can lab managers ensure they choose well? Energy Star may be a little long in the tooth, but for recognized products such as ultra-low freezers, the certification system provides a reliable point of comparison.

"End users will often rely on manufacturer temperature recovery data, but many variables influence these tests, making it difficult to directly compare manufacturers," says LaPorte. "When a unit is submitted to Energy Star, temperature recovery tests are standardized and manufacturers can access those data. This levels the playing field for comparing products, and customers know they’ll get similar results in their real-world situation."

It's also important to look beyond buttons and lights, and consider what's behind the freezer door, advises LaPorte. "There's considerable focus in the industry on touch panels and analytics within the freezer rather than how the freezer works. The most important components for reliability are those you don’t see. It pays to do research and peer review when purchasing; don’t just take the manufacturer's word. Make sure your purchase isn’t going to result in a phone call saying the freezer failed while you were on vacation."

The good news for users is that the legacy of COVID-19 is driving continued innovation in the cold chain industry. Users can employ analytics to determine the health of a freezer in more advanced products. This enables preventive maintenance of a single system, rather than servicing every lab appliance, driving down ownership costs and equipment failure rates.

"We're witnessing the greatest period of innovation I’ve seen in 30 years in this industry," says LaPorte. "As the market strives to address consumer challenges, efforts to increase reliability, reduce energy consumption and drive down ownership costs will translate into improved cold chain solutions to support the next era of biomedicine, from discovery to distribution."

To explore your lab's options for sustainable, reliable cold storage, visit PHC Corporation of North America (PHCNA).