Engineering ingenuity

Graphic: Engineering ingenuity

Engineering ingenuity

Date published

02 Jul 2021

Engineering ingenuity – managing cold-chain vaccines in remote WA

In May this year, the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia was contracted by the Australian Government to expand our service delivery to include COVID-19 vaccination clinics to remote and regional communities nationally.

In Western Australia, RFDS primary health care clinicians will travel far and wide across the world’s most remote health jurisdiction by air and road to deliver the vaccines to people living in some of the most isolated and vulnerable communities in the world.

It quickly became evident that the cold-chain management of the vaccines, which have to be kept consistently at -70C or below, would be crucial to the success of the RFDS’ COVID-19 vaccination roll-outs to the furthest corners of WA.

How do you keep the vaccines cold once you turn off the aircraft and there’s no power supply? This was a challenge the RFDS’ engineering team in Perth could not resist taking on.

RFDS Western Australia Manager of Engineering Andy Lewis had a simple solution up his sleeve which involved a specialised, very low temperature portable freezer, a battery box fitted with an aircraft gel battery and a battery charger.

“A very simple solution came through which is a commercially available battery box and what we’ve done is wired in one of our aircraft gel batteries which is approved for aviation use, is totally spill-proof and is very durable with lots of capacity,” Andy said.

“Inside the box there’s plenty of room so we put in a battery charger as well so it doesn’t matter where you are as long as you can get to a 230 volt power supply you can charge the batteries.

“When you don’t have a 230 volt supply you can plug the freezer into the battery and it will last for around four hours.”

While one problem was solved, another cropped up. Concerns were raised that aircraft vibrations could cause the vials in the freezer to rattle against each other and fracture.

This time RFDS Western Australia senior engineer Michael Chadwick had a brilliant idea to fix the issue.

“Our senior engineer Mike Chadwick had this brilliant idea that just like putting test tubes in individual holders, we could do the exact same thing with wooden racks inside the freezer,” Andy said.

“So he made cut-outs on wooden blocks to put the individuals vials in to keep them separated and prevent them from jangling together.

“These two examples really highlight that the simplest solutions are often the best solutions.”

Andy Lewis and Michael Chadwick

Written by RFDS WA Senior Media and Communications Coordinator Ivy James. For media enquiries, contact: 0438 941 058