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McCormick Senior’s Hand-Crank Vaccine Fridge Wins National Dyson Award

Portable, Inexpensive Vaccine Refrigerator Takes First Place in Design Competition

James Dyson Award: Human-powered Vaccine Refrigerator

When it comes to immunizing against diseases in developing countries, medical practitioners face a long list of challenges. Among the greatest: keeping vaccines cold. With spotty electricity, many rural clinics still use iceboxes to chill vaccines to their proper temperature. But achieving precise temperatures in these conditions is difficult, contributing to a vaccine spoilage rate of up to 50 percent in some areas.

Now McCormick School of Engineering undergraduate Rogers Feng has devised a better way: a portable refrigerator powered by a hand crank. His invention, the Human-Powered Refrigeration System for Developing National Vaccine Field Distribution, surpassed 40 other U.S. submissions to win the U.S. James Dyson Award, an international student design award running in 18 countries.

Feng, a senior in mechanical engineering, won a prize of 1,000 euros (approximately $1,300) and will now advance to the international Dyson competition. The winner will be announced November 8.

After 5 minutes of hand-cranking, Feng’s refrigeration device stays powered for 15 minutes. The cranking motion powers a small DC generator that charges a nine-volt rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which in turn powers thermoelectric modules known as Peltier units to carry out the cooling process.

The design has three major advantages. It has a safety feature that prevents sudden drops in temperature, which can destroy vaccines; it contains no refrigerant fluids, which could leak and harm the environment; and it’s inexpensive. Feng says the units would cost about $50 each.

In addition to his engineering achievements, Feng has gained invaluable knowledge about the process of selling your ideas to others, be they judges or funders. “The biggest thing I learned from the whole experience was how important it was to be able to pitch your ideas to others with amazing visuals,” he said. “A lot of my competitors were industrial design students, and some of their images and videos were definitely better than mine.”

Feng’s project was completed with assistance from J. Edward Colgate, professor of mechanical engineering; Siavash Sohrab, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Stacy Benjamin, senior lecturer and director of the Certificate in Engineering Design at the Segal Design Institute; and Nick Marchuk, lecturer in mechanical engineering.

Feng plans to look into options for commercializing the refrigerator.

UPDATE: Feng and fellow Northwestern student Paul Lieponis are among 50 international semi-finalists in the 2012 James Dyson Award competition.

Lieponis, a master's student in Northwestern's Engineering Design and Innovation program, created a Blind Assistance Technology Buckle, a device that gives blind users a better way of navigating through their immediate surroundings. Inspired by his grandmother's struggle with macular degeneration, Lieponis sought to create a device that would aid visually impaired users while improving their self-esteem and independence.

Fifteen Dyson finalists will be announced on October 8.

Dyson Award-winning vaccine refrigerator