Most college kids' biggest takeaway after spending their spring break in Mexico might be to never drink water out of the faucet, or to remember to wear more sunscreen, or, seriously, don't drink the water or even brush your teeth with it, dude, I'm super serious. Not so for William Broadway, a British undergrad who returned from a camping trip through Mexico with friends armed with an idea for an invention that could potentially save millions of lives around the world.
As part of his undergraduate thesis project at Loughborough University in England, Broadway designed the ISOBAR, a small refrigerated capsule that can maintain a stable cool temperature -- without freezing -- for up to a month. In doing so, he's come up with something that will eliminate the biggest problem involved in transporting medicines and vaccines to far-flung regions that often need them most desperately.
Properly transporting temperature-sensitive vaccines is really difficult
For most of us, getting a routine vaccine is as easy as dropping by the local clinic. But for people who live in the world's remote regions with limited electricity or access to traditional modes of transportation, getting a suitably potent vaccine is actually a huge medical obstacle. That's because temperature-sensitive vaccines -- including those used to eradicate deadly diseases like smallpox and polio -- must remain at a specific and stable cool temperature to remain potent. If they get too cold or too warm, they become too weak to be effective. The current vaccine distribution system for remote parts of the world is remarkably outdated, often depending on vials stashed atop ice or cold packs, which can cause vaccines to fully freeze -- which also ruins them. "Wasted" vaccines, which've been rendered useless due to transportation issues, are surprisingly common, and lead to thousands and thousands of unnecessary deaths in remote regions. It's such a critical issue that four years ago, the EU announced a $2.25 million prize to push for a "leap forward" in vaccine transportation technology.
Broadway's ISOBAR system is undoubtedly a leap forward. Rather than rely on melt-prone ice packs, ISOBAR can keep its vial-filled capsule at a specific, stable cool temperature for up to 30 days without electricity by "recharging" via chemical reaction when necessary. All it requires to set off this air-chilling chemical process is heat -- provided by either a built-in electric-heating element (for when there's access to power) or a propane burner. A report in The Guardian estimates ISOBAR could save up to 1.5 million lives if it's introduced.
Its core functionality was inspired by one of Albert Einstein's inventions
Although Broadway's ISOBAR is undoubtedly innovative, the way it uses heat as a catalyst for the chemical reaction that cools its contents is a technique borrowed from an electricity-free refrigeration system Einstein actually invented in the 1920s (which eventually evolved into something known as the IcyBall refrigerator). Without getting too technical, it involves something called "two-phase ammonia-water absorption," which essentially means that it works by using heat (whether from electricity or the propane burner) to force the ammonia to vaporize into a separate chamber. To initiate the cooling, you simply flip the capsule upside down to release the ammonia, which produces a powerful yet controlled cooling effect.
To come up with initial designs, he toyed around with decommissioned IcyBalls, and worked closely with vaccine nurses to engineer a product that not only functioned, but would be small enough to carry over long distances and sometimes-treacherous terrain.
There's still a lot of work ahead to get this off the ground
Broadway's work on ISOBAR won him the prestigious James Dyson Award given annually to young innovators, and he intends to put the cash prize of 2,000 pounds (about $2,500) toward further development and patent applications. But the timeline for getting functioning units onto the front lines is still unclear. However, Broadway's plan from here is to refine the project and present it to the Gates Foundation or World Health Foundation to run a pilot study on its effectiveness, which would be a huge step in the right direction.
One thing's for sure: it's got a lot more potential to change the world than that two-story beer bong you "engineered" in senior year.
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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. His spring break revelations were... different.