The laboratory freezer, or medical freezer as some call it, is a crucial part of modern medical and pharmaceutical development. The laboratory freezer provides vaccine storage and keeps other medical and laboratory items at the proper temperature. This is a crucial function, given that vaccines save millions of lives every year. The WHO estimates that, since 2000, the measles vaccine alone is responsible for saving well over 17 million people. There’s a fascinating history to these vaccine storage refrigerators, and we haven’t always had this remarkable technology.
What Is a Laboratory Freezer?
Today’s pharmaceutical freezer is capable of keeping temperatures constant and secure. They are protected against power surges, explosions, and other types of accidents. Unlike a home fridge or freezer, they keep a more uniform temperature throughout. Most are also equipped with alarms to alert users to a temperature drop or a door that’s been left open.
Where Does Refrigeration Come From?
It might surprise you to know that the first refrigeration was invented in the 1000s AD. It was a Persian scientist who invented the coils that we’re all used to seeing in the back of our refrigerators. He used them to condense aromatic vapors and distill essential oils.
The First Mechanical Refrigeration
The coils worked, but you needed ice to make that happen. The dream was to make artificial refrigeration: to somehow make things cold without needing the ice that nature provides. That first happened in 1748, when a scientist at Glasgow University in Scotland demonstrated the technique. Not long after, in 1805, Oliver Evans made a machine that refrigerated using vapor instead of liquid.
Michael Faraday, most famous for his work in electromagnetism, discovered that ammonia, when it was liquefied, became cool. It wasn’t long after that, in 1851, that someone invented the very first ice-making machine.
Wouldn’t you know it? The next big innovation in refrigeration would be initiated by brewmasters. Australian beer makers wanted a way to make their beer cold. They commissioned a scientist to invent a way to make that happen. His compressor-driven machine, powered by vapor, was an instant hit. Everyone from the brewers to the meat-packers took advantage.
There were many innovations along the way, most especially in making continuously cooling units. In 1901 someone invented the ice box. This froze things, but it did so using regular ice to do so. In 1915, an electric powered internal freezer finally came along. The company making them was the first to build freezers and fridges for home use. These were wildly successful, and the company was bought out by General Motors and renamed Frigidaire.
Every company from Electrolux to GE was interested in making better freezers and refrigerators. Some of the challenges to be overcome included finding non-toxic materials to do the cooling and dealing with the immense amounts of heat produced by the compressors. These cooling units got better and better, but something more was needed for the scientific community.
The first laboratory freezer was invented in 1968. It was the recognition of a need for a way to protect medical and pharmaceutical items, like vaccines, more securely than with existing technology. It was crucial that pharmaceutical and laboratory items stay at temperature reliably. In the early 1970s, a company finally succeeded in making a biological specimen cabinet that would meet the Institutes of Health Specifications’ requirements.
The modern medical grade freezer or fridge has come a long way. It uses state of the art technology that is still developing and innovating, yet built on the ideas of the ancient past. In many ways, we owe our modern life and the safety and health we enjoy to the dedication and creativity of thousands of people over hundreds of years. Think of that next time you see a laboratory freezer!