An idea that germinated on the dusty streets of Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in the mind of a prominent Indian scientist will finally see fruition this Wednesday when Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam becomes the first global citizen to acquire two refrigerator-cum-vaccine coolers, totally powered by the sun.
The SolarChill uses a breakthrough technology aimed at making the process of refrigeration accessible even to the remotest parts of the world and hence help several social causes like the vaccination projects of the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Rajendra Shende, the head of the OzonAction Unit of the United Nations Environment Programme and the brain behind the idea, remembers clearly the moment when the idea struck him —during a bus ride in the western African nation of Burkina Faso in 2000.
"Looking out of our bus window at the children of the rural poor and thinking about their fragile health, it occurred to me that plenty of sunshine does not mean plenty of health. Some children, carrying their sick younger brothers and sisters, were looking at us as if we were from other planets.
"I thought that if we could develop a vaccine cooler that uses the solar energy so abundant in Burkina Faso and other developing countries, and if we develop a vaccine cooler that uses the solar energy so abundantly available there, and non-CFC (ozone-friendly), non-HFC (climate-friendly) refrigerants, it will be an environmentally perfect product," Shende said in Paris, just before leaving for New Delhi for the high-profile acquisition by the Indian president who has been keeping a close tab on the breakthrough development.
Shende says that the president has been keenly following the progress of the project ever since he heard about it over a year ago.
"When I informed him about the project, he was very keen and requested me to keep him informed on the progress. The president could see the huge importance of SolarChill for the developing countries, particularly in saving the lives of the rural children and women who do not have access to electricity and effective vaccines," recalls Shende.
And when the project was finally complete and the team was looking for high-profile platforms for the launch of the project, Kalam was the unanimous choice.
"It was found to be important to get SolarChill known to the world community. I recalled my discussions with the president in 2005 and wrote to his office. I was immediately informed that the president is not only keen to install and operate two units in the clinic of the presidential complex (around Rashtrapati Bhavan) but was very keen to buy these units and not to get them free," says Shende.
The first use of the SolarChill is for facilitating the preservation of vaccines in far-flung and remote areas that don't have access to not only electricity but also other fuels like kerosene. The vaccine coolers so far being used in immunization programmes work inefficiently due to non-availability or inadequate supply of grid electricity. Even when kerosene is used for the vaccine cooler, supply of kerosene is not certain in many areas and moreover kerosene is also a contributor to global warming and pollution.
The technology has already made waves around the world, winning the prestigious 2006 Cooling Industry Awards in the category "Environmental Pioneer" for refrigeration in London earlier this year.
The project is truly international since it involves a total of seven international organisations from all over the world. Besides the UNEP, the partners in the project include Greenpeace International, UNICEF, World Health Organisation (WHO), GTZ Proklima, Programmes for Appropriate Technologies in Health (PATH) and the Danish Technological Institute.
Shende is obviously thrilled by the success of the project. "Receiving the Cooling Industry Awards is an important statement by industry leaders in refrigeration and air-conditioning that they recognize the importance, innovation and societal benefits of SolarChill. UNEP and the other partners would like to thank the organizers and the jury panel members for this award."
Over the last six years, the partnership has developed a versatile refrigeration technology that operates on solar energy; uses environmentally safe refrigerants, bypasses the use of lead batteries, and can also be plugged into the electricity grid. SolarChill is applicable for emergency relief in natural or human made disaster zones. It has been field-tested in Cuba, Indonesia and Senegal.
The SolarChill technology is publicly owned and will soon be freely available for any company in the world interested in producing the units. Once it receives WHO approval, the Partners will work with interested refrigerator manufacturers, ministries of health and environment, foundations and others to have it commercialised and deployed across the globe.
Shende says that though solar refrigeration per se is not a new concept, SolarChill is a real breakthrough. What the SolarChill partnership was trying to achieve is to adopt the concept for vaccines preservation and making it simple for use in rural, remote and least developed areas where electricity is not available or where the electric supply is irregular. Such situation causes the efficacy of the vaccines to diminish. Hence even administered vaccination programmes may not achieve their goals.
The partnership also decided to avoid the need to convert the direct current (DC) solar electricity to alternate current (AC) electricity by designing the DC motor that would run the compressor. The need for the storage batteries was also to be done away with by designing the effective insulation that would maintain the temperatures to keep the vaccines effective during the night when solar light is not available. The product was developed in four years, through collaborative efforts, field-tested and is now undergoing WHO approval process.
"The power of partnership has produced the product that is pro-poor. Power of nature could be nurtured to improve the way we make choices for the sustainable development. For the first time in the history of technology transfer the partnership of seven international agencies, and NGOs and technical institutes has developed a technology that is in public domain. It would be made available to those who wish to use it," says Shende.