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Using off-grid cell towers to maintain vaccine "cold chain"

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A major hurdle in distributing vaccines to remote areas is the limited energy infrastructure in developing nations. To their maintain potency, vaccines need to be stored within a narrow temperature range during shipment from the manufacturer to the point of delivery. But this "cold chain" is often compromised by the exorbitant energy costs, unreliable power grids or a lack of refrigeration services in rural communities.

While some groups are working to develop heat-stable vaccines and solar powered refrigeration units, the Energy for Health Project at the University of Pennsylvania is exploring using surplus energy from off-grid cell towers to power cold chains.

In an article yesterday in the New Scientist, University of Pennsylvania professor Harvey Rubin, MD, PhD, and Harvey Mudd College student Alice Conant discuss why off-grid cell towers are a promising cold chain solution:

The off-grid network is growing fast. The industry trade association, GSMA, estimates that by 2012 there will be 639,000 off-grid cell towers in the developing world. These represent a potential new energy infrastructure in locations with no access to the electrical grid...

...With the support of Community Power, network operators are already exploring ways of using their surplus tower power to charge mobile handsets, household batteries and rechargeable lanterns...

...Cold-chain refrigerators require a minimum of 8 hours of electricity a day, and even the most energy-hungry models require no more than 2 kilowatts of power. Off-grid cell towers produce about 5 kilowatts of excess power on average, so this should be achievable with no negative impact on the cellphone network.

The Energy for Health Project is also investigating using excess power from off-grid cell towers to run water purification systems.

Photo by Alan Levine

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