A Maltese team of researchers may have found the solution to the last-mile cold chain problem of the COVID-19 vaccine.

ICECAP is a cooling technology small enough to fit within a portable electronic product, first developed before the novel coronavirus made headlines as part of a project for a high-performance imaging product.

Some of the design challenges engineers faced were related to cooling processors and image sensors.

Andre Micallef from the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering within the University’s Faculty of Engineering, who is leading the project, said, “We needed to cool internal components to less than -20 degrees Celsius, so we had to rethink cooling methods and eventually came up with something small enough to fit within a portable electronic product.”

As information about the vaccines being developed and the conditions required for their transport was released to the public, the research team quickly realised that this technology could be adapted from cooling electronics to the cooling of vaccines.

The University explained that current last-mile transporters cool vaccines passively, isolating the active ingredient from the outside heat until it has reached its destination. This only lasts up to a couple of days unless more dry ice is added, which can be impractical in remote areas where infrastructure is lacking.

ICECAP uses an active cooling method based on the Peltier effect. Conventional applications of this technology waste power and generate excessive waste heat, but the Maltese team found a way to make a compact cooling system efficient enough to achieve temperatures down to near cryogenic levels.

The research team partnered with New Energy Ltd, a local company internationally known for producing power systems for the audio-visual industry.

“By using hot swap battery-packs we can keep the system running for a very long time,” said Alec Fenech, responsible for leading project contributions from the private sector.

ICECAP secured close to €200,000 of funding from the Malta Council for Science & Technology through FUSION: The R&I Technology Development Programme, covering a two-and-a-half-year period of development.

The team has since started the process towards filing two patents, whilst racing towards a viable electronic prototype.

“Right now, it’s about securing the technology and making sure the system works as expected. If things go as planned, we should have a prototype module by next year,” Mr Micallef said.

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