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Maintaining a cold chain through use of materials that store & release energy
Tuesday, 16 August, 2022, 12 : 00 PM [IST]
Samit Jain
Any perishable product, such as frozen foods, dairy products, chocolates, fresh produce, poultry, seafood or meat, is required to be kept at a ‘controlled-temperature’ while being taken from the farm, sea or manufacturing locations to the end consumers. A ‘controlled-temperature’ is also necessary to minimise food losses and help increase product shelf-life and prevent spoilage of such products.

With evolving dietary habits, which are increasingly becoming diverse, the transport and storage of food and beverages is required to be more exhaustive, robust, and cost effective. The most important aspect in the cold chain is preserving the quality and value of perishables, for example, thawing and refreezing of ice cream due to lack of temperature control in the cold chain will make it lose its texture and taste.

Food and dairy products require different temperature conditions during transit. In most cold chains, the transport trucks and storage chambers maintain a constant temperature. More often, loading a conventional refrigerated truck with different kinds of perishables is not viable as refrigerated trucks maintain a single temperature during their journey.

In this case moving food products that require different temperatures to be maintained, such as chilled (from 2 to 8 degree Celsius for fruits and vegetables) or frozen (from -18 to 0 degree Celsius for ice cream and poultry) becomes a challenge.

A cold chain that uses conventional air-conditioning, which is dependent on active cooling/refrigeration, whether the fuel is electricity or diesel, has high capital and maintenance costs associated with it. A ‘passive cold chain’, on the other hand, is low-operating cost solution, for which cooling materials like ice packs, glycol packs and dry ice have been commonly used. However, these materials have limitations in terms of precise temperature control, reusability, energy efficiency and storage capacity for cooling requirements.

A ‘passive cold-chain’ based on ‘thermal energy storage’ technology is not only reliable but can be customised to store energy at different temperatures as per the cooling requirement. ‘Phase change materials’ ‘store and release’ energy, and thereby maintain a constant ambient temperature. The utility of these ‘phase change materials’ is derived from their ability to store latent heat at ‘desired’ temperatures. Latent heat or hidden heat is the energy absorbed or released during the change in phase of the matter. For instance, water exhibits two phases, solid (ice) at 0?C and liquid (water) at room temperature. The energy used during this phase transition is the latent heat of the water-ice system.

These ‘phase change materials’ can be encapsulated in bottles or pouches and can be customised to maintain any temperature range. Precise and predictable, these ‘phase change materials’ or ‘thermal batteries’ not only offer precise temperature control but also eliminate any uncertainty linked to active cooling systems.

In an active cooling system, a machine failure or switching off the equipment would result in temperature variation for the cargo. However, in case of ‘phase change materials’, they continue releasing energy, and thereby maintain a constant temperature.

In inter-city supply chain, the transit time range is predictable, and with the ‘phase change materials’ based cooling solutions one can essentially quantify the amount of energy required, which can be stored in advance.

The Indian cold chain sector is growing very fast and converting to ‘phase change materials’ based technology will lead to reduction in fuel consumption and carbon-emissions, as well as reduction in product spoilage during transit.

(The author is managing director at Pluss Advanced Technologies)
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