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What does the vaccine mean for cold chain sustainability?

Gloved hands taking a box out of a freezer

The COVID-19 vaccine might be a once in generation chance to reinvent the cold chain to be more sustainable.//Courtesy of Burst

After the BioNTech-Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine’s FDA approval in early December, the focus has shifted towards getting the vaccine to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. For this, Pfizer, BioNTech and other pharmaceutical companies will rely on the cold chain, the connected line of warehouses, planes, trucks and refrigerators that keeps the vaccine cold during transport and storage. And it’s not just vaccines that rely on the cold chain — each year 70 percent of our food passes through this type of supply chain either partially or entirely. 

Estimates suggest the cold chain represents 3 to 3.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And greening the cold chain faces three significant challenges. But the money and resources pouring into the cold chain spurred by the coronavirus vaccine might be a once-in-a-century chance to make serious changes to the sustainability of this system. 

"We look at that as an opportunity to inject sustainability into this rapid innovation and restructuring of the cold chain," said Paul Camuti, chief technology and strategy officer for Trane Technologies. 

Trane, which already had developed a freezer product that could reach the extremely low temperatures needed for the Pfizer BioTech vaccine for transporting sushi-grade tuna across the country, is part of Operation Warp Speed, a partnership between private industries and federal government agencies tasked with developing and delivering the coronavirus vaccine. 

Greening the cold chain

The first sustainability issue in the cold chain is the direct emissions from leaking refrigerants. Up to 30 percent of the gas used to cool the refrigerator is leaked into the atmosphere. According to Camuti, Trane is working on creating potential refrigerants with fewer global warming impacts. But the bigger issue for cold chains is the massive energy costs of running the refrigerators. According to Toby Peters, a professor of cold chain economy at the University of Birmingham, 80 percent of the emissions from cold chains come from energy use. 

The industry is starting to shift to more renewable energy sources. Trane recently released its next generation trailer refrigeration product in Europe called the Advancer. It is a hybrid electric trailer solution that improves energy efficiency up to 30 percent and was specially designed so the company could manufacturer the technology with 75 percent less energy. But the standard is still gas and diesel, and as governmental, societal and pandemic pressures push cold chain providers to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible, these more sustainable options might be passed over for the tried and true methods. 

Governments and industries are throwing money at an existing system instead of trying to re-invent a more sustainable one.

"Every time something is inefficient, or is broken, the default position is to put a diesel [generator] down to solve the problem," Peters said. "And once you put that diesel [generator] in the system, it will remain there because it is too expensive to replace it." 

Peters is worried that governments and industries are throwing money at an existing system instead of trying to re-invent a more sustainable one. If the industry does move away from diesel, the most common replacement is lithium-ion batteries. But he wants the industry to forgo batteries for thermal phase change solutions — substances that absorb and release heat during the process of melting and freezing to regulate temperature of a space — that rely on less electricity. 

An example of a thermal phase change solution is freezing a saline fluid at night when energy requirements are low and then using that frozen saline during the day to keep a warehouse or truck cool instead of relying on batteries, gas or even the electrical grid. 

But according to Brian Dunn, vice president of facility maintenance and energy at logistics and supply chain company Americold, thermal phase change solutions are not financially viable for commercial cold chains unless a state or municipality subsidizes them. Phase change solutions are built for a very narrow window of temperatures and once built, that temperature window cannot be shifted. 

"The phase change material was designed for a specific temperature load," Dunn said. "You need long term contracts, like 20-year contracts, because when the temperature needs to change, the phase-change material that you have in there is no longer able to be used."

Americold has three warehouses that use a phase change material but it’s unlikely the system would work for trucks that have a constant rotation of products that need to be transported at different temperatures. Dunn sees phase change materials entering the cold chain at its end point, in frozen food sections of grocery stores or in pharmacy freezers where temperatures are consistent. 

The last issue cold chains need to tackle is waste. According to the World Health Organization, 25 percent of vaccines are lost in transport due to breaks in the cold chain, creating waste. Innovation around digital tracking and real-time temperature recordings were inching towards closing those gaps before the pandemic, but the coronavirus vaccine has managed to get everyone together in the same (virtual) room to figure out the problems.

"The biggest impact right now is, you have a lot of conversations going on between non-traditional collaborators," Camuti said. "In cold chain, you have a lot of different people involved. Historically, those things are pretty disconnected. And the one thing that the vaccine movement does is force people together." 

The hope is that now that these entities have worked together to solve the biggest crisis in a century — the pandemic — they can continue to work together to fix the cold chain for our next one: climate change. 

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