As the current pandemic carries on, a local team of researchers have been quietly working on a cooling technology called ICECAP, which can solve the last-mile cold chain problem and helping global efforts towards ending COVID-19 as we know it.
Last February, engineers at the University of Malta finalised their design for a high-performance imaging product. Some of the design challenges they faced were related to cooling processors and image sensors. “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” said Mr Andre Micallef from the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering within the University's Faculty of Engineering, who is leading the project.
As the pandemic progressed, the research team quickly realised that this technology can be adapted from cooling electronics to the cooling of vaccines. 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.
Instead, this cooling technology uses an active cooling method based on the Peltier effect. Conventional applications of this technology waste power and generate excessive waste heat. However, 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 has 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 Mr Alec Fenech, responsible for leading project contributions from the private sector.
ICECAP has also secured close to €200,000 of funding. This covers a two-and-a-half-year period of development from the Malta Council for Science & Technology through FUSION: The R&I Technology Development Programme.
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” added Mr Micallef.