Like many good inventions, Olaf Diegel’s was born of necessity: a diabetic, he had trouble when traveling in Turkey last year keeping his insulin cool so he decided to invent something that would do the job.
Until now, most diabetics would have to carry icepacks with them when travelling, to store insulin once it was taken out of a hotel fridge. Now, Mr Diegel has come up with a portable ‘fridge’ to transport and cool insulin.
“Modern developments in insulin allow it to be kept unrefrigerated for reasonable periods, if the ambient temperature is below 20 Celsius,” the Massey University lecturer in product development explains. Rapid changes in temperature, however, are undesirable and many countries have temperatures ranging from 20 Celsius to 40 Celsius which can rapidly spoil insulin.
And if the hotel doesn’t have a minibar fridge, which is what Mr Diegel encountered in Turkey last year, it can cause headaches for the diabetic traveller.
“Normally what I do is … put (an icepack) in the freezer compartment and that’s enough to keep the icepack frozen so the next morning I’m ready to go for the day. And this (hotel) didn’t have one, so every night I had to go to reception and say please can you put this in the freezer?” Mr Diegel says.
“For three days every time I’d come down to pick it up from reception it wasn’t frozen.”
It turned out that the hotel didn’t actually have a freezer but had been putting the icepack in an ice-making machine which was not cool enough to freeze the icepack. That meant that during the heat of the Turkish day, Mr Diegel had trouble keeping his insulin as cool as it needed to be.
When I got back, I thought there had to be a better way.”
What Mr Diegel developed was a tiny fridge that utilises the technology that cools computer chips. That technology, a heat pump known as a Peltier device, pumps energy from one side to the other “so the one side goes cold and the other side goes hot,” says Mr Diegel.
“There’s an 80 degrees difference between the hot and the cold side so if you can manage to get the hot side to 80 degrees that means the cold side is at zero. In our case… we control the temperature to keep it between 4 and 10 degrees, refrigerator temperature.”
Even though Mr Diegel thinks it is the world’s smallest fridge — “All the research I’ve done it’s the world’s smallest fridge. Nobody’s proved me wrong yet,” he says — it can hold up to four vials of insulin and two spare needles, enough for two weeks medication in Mr Diegel’s case. The mini-fridge is powered by a rechargeable battery and fits into a jacket pocket; it is designed to be plugged into mains power at night to recharge the battery.
Mr Diegel’s invention won second prize in an international design contest, and has attracted the attention of a Swiss company Microlife, which manufactures medical equipment.
“Since the original prototype was built we have reduced it in size by half, it’s now flatter and we’ve changed the battery, made it a lot smaller and more efficient. All going well the first models will be on the shelf this side of Christmas.”
Then, Mr Diegel’s frequent travels will become that much easier: “I don’t think a non-diabetic could have done it because they are not going to see the need necessarily.”