When he was six months old, Anurudh Ganesan experienced first-hand the difference a vaccine can make in the lives of those who need it.
His grandparents carried him across 10 miles of remote terrain in India, the country of Ganesan’s birth, so that he could receive a polio vaccination. Upon arriving, they learned that the vaccinations were no longer effective.
“I was fortunate,” Ganesan tells Tech Insider, since he avoided getting polio despite being unvaccinated at the time. “For many, that trek to be vaccinated is a matter of life and death.”
Monday, we caught up with the 15-year-old high school student at the fifth annual Google Science Fair, a global competition and celebration of innovation, where he took home the LEGO Education Builder Award.
His invention, the VAXXWAGON, is a portable refrigeration system that enables doctors to transport vaccines safely and effectively. No ice or electricity required.
Often in developing countries, where proper medical attention may exceed a day’s travel, vaccines are transported from hospitals to remote villages on foot, bicycle, motorcycle, or pack animal. These journeys, referred to as “last-leg” vaccine transportation, can last 15 miles or more.
While traversing the roadless terrain doesn’t sound easy, health workers face a bigger challenge.
In order to be safe and effective, vaccines must maintain a “Goldilocks temperature” between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius — similar to a very cold refrigerator — from the time they leave the manufacturers to the moment they reach the patient. Hospitals will package the vaccine on ice, but this can easily backfire if the ice is too cold and freezes the vials, or if it melts before the vaccine reaches its destination.
Having heard the story of his grandparents’ odyssey since he was an infant, Ganesan felt heartbroken when he learned that 1.5 million children died in 2008 from vaccine-preventable diseases.
So, he did what any science-loving hacker would do: He broke things.
“I took a refrigerator apart,” Ganesan says. “I saw how it worked, and tried to re-engineer it so that it used no electricity and no ice to provide accurate refrigeration of vaccines while in transport.”
Phase II of the VAXXWAGON, as he named his device, looks like a Rube Goldberg-inspired mouse trap affixed to a wooden plank on wheels. A large plastic thermos sits in the center.
Cherry-picking bits of research from the labs of Princeton University professor Winston Soboyejo and Northwestern University student Rogers Feng, Ganesan realised that he could power a refrigeration system with mechanical power, rather than electricity. A health care worker may hitch the VAXXWAGON’s trailer to his bike, and cool the thermos with the power generated by simply turning the wheels on the trailer as it’s pulled along.
The cooling apparatus in the wagon is powered by the human or animal pulling it along. In its current iteration, the wagon uses only a fraction of the power a bike-peddler would put out during a trip.As a test, Ganesan ran the VAXXWAGON on a treadmill at eight miles per hour for six hours — racking up energy to power the refrigerator — and let it rest for nearly five hours to collect data while the compressor wasn’t being powered. In this simulated last-leg of the trip, the fake vaccines maintained a temperature in the Goldilocks range for over four hours.
The cost to build it all? Roughly $US100.
While Ganesan plans to redesign his prototype again and again, making it easier to operate and more cost-efficient, he foresees his VAXXWAGON being used around the globe one day. He’s filed a patent application and bought the domain name — well on his way to becoming the next great disruptor.
And in the meantime, Ganesan has a bit of travelling to do. As part of the LEGO Education Builder Award, he’s been invited to The LEGO Group headquarters in Billund, Denmark, for a meet-and-greet with employees and a tour of the manufacturing facilities. The prize package comes with some sweet souvenirs, too: tickets to LEGOLAND Denmark, LEGO sets for his classroom, and a custom LEGO brick designed by one of the LEGO Education designers.
While at the mothership, Ganesan will link up with a LEGO Education executive, who will serve as an entrepreneurial mentor for six months.
Perhaps we’ll see some familiar bricks in VAXXWAGON Phase IV.
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