How to Keep Meds Cool During a Disaster? Engineering Students Tackle the Challenge

Oct 31, 2019

For most people, the loss of refrigeration when the power goes out isn’t much more than an inconvenience. But for those whose critical medicines need to stay cold, lack of refrigeration can be life threatening. Now a class at the FAMU/FSU College of Engineering is determined to solve the problem.

Aftermath of Hurricane Michael at Mexico Beach. If the residents of these homes needed to keep their medicines cool, they obviously wouldn't be able to do it here.
Credit Tom Flanigan

Tom Derzypolski, who runs a successful Tallahassee marketing firm, has been making regular relief trips to the areas most devastated by Hurricane Michael for the past year.

“We encountered all kinds of interesting challenges,” he related. “The list is long, but one that stood out was how people can manage medications during a natural disaster, particularly when the power’s out if you have medicines that need to be cold. I paid attention to this because in December of last year our youngest son was diagnosed with Type One Diabetes and before you open the medication, it must be refrigerated.”

Derzypolski quickly realized there was a local resource that might be able to tackle the problem.

“I thought this might be an interesting engineering challenge for the bright minds at Florida State and Florida A&M University (in the schools’ joint engineering college.) As luck would have it, they have a program where they take on a challenge each year and we were so excited that they chose this one.”

A 6-member team, headed by Mechanical Engineering Professor and Project Advisor Dr. Shayne McConomy was soon on the case. Although Professor McConomy would be the first to admit it is a daunting challenge.

“Unless you have some type of generator, some way to generate energy to keep it cool, otherwise it’s always going to decline. It’s inevitable; it’s always going to warm up.”

As a certain famous starship engineer once put it:

(sound clip of “Scotty” from original Star Trek series) “I can’t change the laws of physics!”

Tyler White, one of five senior mechanical engineering students on the project, said conventional coolers and ice packs have serious limitations.

“Most coolers out on the market nowadays can only last 3 or 4 days max with ice in them to be at that desired temperature range for the medicine that we’re dealing with,” he explained.

Which is why team member Tim Willms said they’re looking at all kinds of options.

“We have spit-balled all kinds of ideas for power generation from solar panels and wind turbines,” he explained. “We found emergency batteries that are the size of a generator, but they can store a lot of power and they’re commercially available, to little turbines that you can stick in running water and that’ll spin the turbine. In the situation of a hurricane, there’s flood water so you will have a current that could drive a turbine.”

As the old saying goes, just about anything is possible if money is no object. But team member Matt Israel said having an affordable solution is vital.

“Making it commercially available, not only to consumers that can afford it, but also FEMA and the Red Cross distributing such a device to people who need it has also been a priority from the get-go.”

With such a complex project, mistakes are an ever-present danger. So team member Christian Torpey is there to keep the error factor as close to zero as possible.

“I look over everything before it’s submitted and sent out, double check equations and just make sure everything is up to snuff,” he explained.

The team - which also includes student Jesse Arrington who was unable to join his colleagues for this interview - remain solidly optimistic of success. If that happens, the commercial payback could be massive. But Professor and Project Advisor Dr. Shayne McConomy emphasized there’s a far more significant reason to keep pressing ahead.

“More important than the market sales of it is how do we preserve human life. That’s a more valuable commodity than any monetization than we could achieve our of this.”

We’ll let you know how the project turns out.