Access to electricity is one of the biggest obstacles in advancing development in the Global South. Children have to rely on kerosene lamps to complete homework, farming is small scale and laborious, and medical clinics are severely limited in the services they can provide. As cellphone use in the Global South has skyrocketed in recent years, scientists, engineers, and tech experts are devising ways to use them to combat poverty or to benefit livelihoods in a number of ways. Innovations in mobile technology have largely centered on using the phone itself to conduct testing, or using the tower to transfer data to better inform research or predict weather patterns. A recent innovation developed at the University of Pennsylvania has come up with something different: using the surplus energy from cell towers to refrigerate vaccines.
Harvey Rubin and his team at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a project called Energize the Chain, which uses the excess energy from power grids at cellphone towers to run refrigerators that keep vaccines cold in rural areas. Remote communities often lack the energy infrastructure to preserve the cold-chain, upon which so many vaccines depend. Cell towers house a 24-hour supply of energy, the excess of which is currently going to waste. Rubin and his team have partnered with Econet Wireless, an international telecom corporation, and are using their towers to power refrigeration units in 10 hospitals in Zimbabwe. The refrigeration units are physically plugged into cell tower sites and serve as hosts for vaccination clinics. The units are placed either directly below the tower, or are located in nearby hospitals.
The refrigerators are equipped with sensors that detect internal and external temperatures, as well as how long the refrigerator door has been open. The data is relayed back to Econet and its partners via cellphone signals for monitoring purposes, and so they can respond immediately in the event something goes wrong. If a power glitch were to occur, these units can remain cool for up to 10 days, even at temperatures of up to 40°C. This provides ample time to transport temperature-sensitive vaccines elsewhere if need be.
However, telecom corporations have an incentive to keep their power on at all times and often have their own private back-up systems if national grids go down, and so the likelihood of power to refrigeration units being interrupted is slim. According to Rubin, “he energy that a refrigerator draws is minimal, and when you combine that with the need for the cell companies to present themselves as good guys to the local community, it’s a natural fit.”
Around the world, upwards of 2.5 million children die every year from preventable diseases such as measles, polio and diphtheria because they haven’t been vaccinated. Most of those affected reside in remote areas with no access to power grids. In those locales, cell phone towers may be the only source of energy available. They are often powered by a combination of gas turbines, diesel generators, or solar panels, among other options. Consequently, the project has a significantly wide reach, given that approximately 75% of the populated world is covered by mobile cellphone signals, and that number is expected to reach 100% in 2015, according to Dr. Rubin.
The innovation has a number of positive implications. By increasing the amount of energy available for refrigerating the vaccines, more vaccines can be kept cold at one time, and more people can be inoculated. This not only directly translates into a potentially healthier population, but also cuts down the amount of time and money it would take to deliver vaccines to those in remote areas.
It will also reduce costs in keeping the vaccines cold and of transporting vaccines to other far-away health facilities when power grids fail. Additionally, a stable cooling environment will preserve the condition of the vaccine, reducing the number that spoil due to poor handling, or exposure to heat during multiple transfers from the point of manufacture through to patient delivery.
Energize the Chain has recently gained non-profit status. It received the award for “Best Mobile Health Product or Service” at the Global Mobile Awards, which was part of the Global Mobile World Congress, held earlier this year in Barcelona, Spain. It has gained global attention, and is seeking to expand its reach and operations across the Global South. The organization is looking to tap into cell-towers in Nigeria and is in the process of devising a pilot project in Kenya, with support from the US and Kenyan governments. It is also in talks with Vodaphone and Karuna Trust in India, which is known for providing healthcare to the “untouchable” Dalit Caste.
Click here for more information on the project and its developments.