South Africa: Renergen pioneers cold storage solution for coronavirus vaccine transport

By David Whitehouse

Posted on Thursday, 3 June 2021 16:44
Stefano Marani, CEO of Renergen, speaks during the media launch of Renergen's working prototype cold-chain storage called Cryo-Vacc, in Johannesburg
Stefano Marani, CEO of Renergen. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

South Africa’s emerging natural gas and helium producer Renergen is branching out into cold storage solutions for covid vaccine transportation.

The company’s Cryo-Vacc innovations have the potential to make a contribution to the company’s bottom line, CEO Stefano Marani tells The Africa Report. While it’s too early to judge how much Cryo-Vacc can add to profit, the patented invention “has the potential to be quite material in the near future,” Marani says in Johannesburg.

Getting sufficient Covid-19 doses for Africa is only part of the problem. The need for vaccines, such as that developed by Pfizer, to be stored at ultra-low temperatures creates a major logistical problem, especially in moving the vaccines to rural areas.

Marani drew up the Cryo-Vacc concept, which was then put into practice by the company’s engineering team. Vaccines can be stored at -70°C for up to 25 days, and during that time, they are completely mobile. No electricity is needed. The solution exists in two forms. Liquid nitrogen is used for ground-based transport, and liquid helium for planes. The technology can be adapted for different vaccines that need storage at different temperatures.

  • Using dry ice to transport vaccines by plane poses a challenge as there is a capacity constraint of 40,000 vials per flight, due to safety rules on amounts of carbon dioxide generated.
  • This constraint can be overcome if the dry ice is replaced. A single plane would be able to carry up to 3.6m doses using liquid helium instead, Marani says. “That’s a game changer.”
  • The company is currently using three local manufacturers to build components, with Renergen tasked with the final assembly.
  • That set-up will allow production of 500 and 1,000 units per month.
  • Exporting the solution to a large emerging market outside South Africa would require new partners to outsource production, Marani says.

Logical progression

Renergen, that trades on the Johannesburg stock exchange and in Australia, holds the only onshore petroleum production right in South Africa, giving it first mover advantage in the distribution of domestic natural gas. Its Virginia gas project is located in the Free State, about 250 km southwest of Johannesburg. The fact that liquid natural gas (LNG) needs to be stored at -162°C makes cold storage vaccine solutions a logical progression for the company.

  • An initial order for 110 of the aluminium cases has been made by DPD Laser, a South African unit of Geopost, which is owned by the French post office La Poste.
  • Final tests to validate the product are being carried out and Marani expects the results next week.

A separate piece of cold storage innovation is made possible by the fact that LNG has to be raised from -162°C to room temperature in order to be used as truck fuel. That has allowed an engineering solution in which the LNG is first used to provide cold storage on trucks before being converted to fuel while in transit. Marani hopes that this solution will go live in the course of next year.

Bottom line

Vaccines won’t protect Africa from Covid-19 without cold storage transport systems.

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