In January’s newsletter, I wrote about some of the innovations taking place in the refrigeration industry, particularly as they related to the proper storage of Covid-19 vaccines. Since then, I’ve seen a plethora of new refrigeration products hit the market that are designed for use in multiple industries. Many of these innovations seem to focus on the last mile -- which refers to the very last step of the delivery process -- and all underscore the importance that refrigeration plays in our world today.

One of those products was introduced to me by a reader responding to my January newsletter (thanks, Norman!). He let me know about a United Kingdom company called Sunamp, which moved quickly in order to develop a fully portable, cordless refrigerator that can keep vaccines at -70°C (-94°F) for 24 days or more. (As has been well documented, some vaccines for Covid-19 must be kept at ultra-low temperatures.)

Developed in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, the Permafrost VacSafe is powered by dry ice and is designed for use in the last-mile distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. This could be extremely helpful in poorer parts of the world that lack reliable refrigeration and/or electricity. The compact unit measures about 24 by 14 by 23 inches and according to the company, is refillable, rechargeable, recyclable, and reusable. It can also be used with water ice to store other vaccines that do not require such low temperatures.

Retailers are also looking at new types of refrigeration systems that can support last-mile deliveries. According to Walmart, beginning this spring, “participating customers in Bentonville, Arkansas, will be able to receive deliveries from their local Walmart directly into a temperature-controlled HomeValet-powered smart box placed outside their home. This gives customers the ability to receive secure, contactless deliveries with the peace of mind knowing their grocery items will stay fresh.”

Walmart states that HomeValet’s smart box is powered by an internet of things (IoT) platform that has three temperature-controlled zones, so it can properly store frozen, refrigerated, and pantry items. When it’s time for a delivery to be made, the smart box communicates with the delivery provider’s device, giving them secure access to the smart box to complete the delivery. Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product at Walmart U.S. notes that “the prospect of this technology is intriguing, both for customers and for Walmart’s last-mile delivery efforts.”

At the beginning of the year, Albertson’s announced the installation of an automated and contactless grocery PickUp kiosk at one of its Jewel-Osco stores in Chicago. The temperature-controlled kiosk, created by Cleveron, provides a contactless pickup experience, which has become very popular over the last year. Customers who select the “Kiosk PickUp” option when shopping online will be offered 2-hour time slots during which to pick up their groceries.

According to Cleveron, when customers arrive at the kiosk, they scan a code on their phone and their groceries are robotically delivered to the front of the unit for pickup. The unit features two temperature zones—regular and a deep freeze -- and a customer’s order can be stored in two different zones and still be delivered in the same console for pick up. Chris Rupp, executive vice president and chief customer and digital officer at Albertsons Cos., noted, “This innovative and contactless PickUp kiosk makes it even easier for customers to shop with us in a way that is convenient for them.”

Convenience is key these days, as customers look for ways to minimize interaction with those outside their households. One convenient refrigeration device that I, personally, find very intriguing is the Cold Snap™, which debuted at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. This rapid freezing appliance produces single servings of frozen ice cream, smoothies, and beverages from shelf-stable pods (like Keurig coffee makers) in less than 2 minutes. Granted, I’d have to consume a lot of margaritas in order to offset the expected $500 cost of this machine, but I’m willing to give it a try.

From life-saving vaccine storage to temperature-controlled boxes and kiosks for shoppers, the refrigeration industry is stepping up to offer innovative solutions that are designed to make the world a better place. I can’t wait to see what other innovations the industry has in store for us this year.

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