Laboratory professionals rely on consistent and dependable refrigeration to safeguard precious samples and biological products for research, diagnostics and quality assurance. One variable that can affect sample integrity is fluctuation in temperature and the inability to maintain an optimal temperature range for different materials. This has become a larger issue within the industry as many laboratories use different practices and procedures for this process, with some even adopting their own methods to develop temperature standards. This contributes to errors that affect both the efficacy of research and the increased costs to adequately measure results.

As the laboratory continues to make breakthroughs in medicine and science, its refrigeration technology must be able to keep up. Conventional refrigeration is based on vapor compression, a technology that contributes to global warming and runs the risk of mechanical failure. In order to be effective, laboratory refrigeration must provide 24/7 stable and uniform temperature control within a tight temperature range to protect contents. Whether storing biological compounds, test samples or other pharmaceutical products, high-performance cold storage is paramount to properly maintain temperature-sensitive products and samples, while adhering to strict regulatory guidelines. 

While there is no universal temperature setting for every biological or test sample, it is advised that refrigeration used for storing samples must average 4 C and the set point drift must not exceed 2 C in the span of one year. Because these temperature requirements are so precise, laboratory professionals must ensure they select a reliable refrigerator that can withstand extreme physical, environmental and electrical conditions without compromising performance. This requires reliability testing to ensure all parts of the refrigerator are working and performing to set standards, and monitoring systems to maintain an accurate record of temperature performance. 

The solid-state approach

Quality and performance should be at the core of how refrigeration is designed. Unfortunately, decisions regarding the use of thermal management technologies are often influenced by multiple factors, including established engineering practices, personal preferences, alternative technology knowledge, vendor preferences, development budgets and other considerations. The lack of innovation beyond conventional technologies is in direct conflict with the needs of laboratories to seek cost effective solutions that maintain tight temperature profiles essential to protocols.

Most high-performance refrigeration used in the lab today is compressor-based, a conventional technology with proven variability in performance, delivering uneven temperature control inside the chamber, high maintenance and energy costs and noisy operation. In order for a compressor-based refrigerator to function, the system is frequently cycled on and off, creating an environment within the chamber where temperatures can oscillate up to 5 C, exposing products to constant fluctuations and freezing temperatures that can potentially damage or destroy them. This cycle has existed for well over a century—and the argument can be made that innovation is fundamentally limited when people believe they have to work within the confines of an existing technology. For the refrigeration industry, the need to displace the compressor is long overdue.

Refrigeration using solid-state technology offers a different approach. Solid-state technology can be found in a number of disruptive industries. One example is the use of solid-state memory in computer hard drives that provides faster and more reliable access to data compared to mechanical hard drives, which use moving parts to achieve performance. Because of these moving parts, mechanical hard drives typically wear down faster and fail the more frequently they are used—a shortcoming completely eliminated by using solid-state. Because of these proven advantages in terms of reliability and performance, solid-state technology has been quickly adopted across a wide range of industries. One of the newest uses lies in the cold storage industry to safeguard precious samples and materials. Arming laboratory and research professionals with more reliable equipment allows them to focus on their research, trusting their life’s work is safe and sound.

In contrast to compressor-based systems and other incumbent models, solid-state technology used for refrigeration is providing unparalleled performance for cold storage. Much like its applications across other industries, solid-state offers a stable and controlled environment within the refrigerator while eliminating the need for moving parts or hazardous refrigerants common in conventional models. Using this approach, scientists are able to control temperatures throughout the chamber at levels of precision (< 0.2 C stability), something unachievable in compressor-based refrigerators. This level of control prevents exposure to dangerous risks associated with inadequate temperature control. For example, the largest danger to vaccines and insulin storage is inadvertent freezing. Freezing destroys active ingredients within these samples and renders them ineffective. This can occur due to poor air circulation and distribution within conventional refrigerators or blocked air flow by products stored within the refrigerator—even though the display temperature might still be within range. Using solid-state technology, laboratory professionals are able to incorporate redundant refrigeration systems within the same footprint, without sacrificing storage capacity, making a solid-state refrigeration system fail-proof for critical sample protection. Holding this tight temperature profile is possible because the system is dynamically reacting to temperature changes as they occur.

While inventory protection through proper temperature control is imperative, the absence of a compressor can also provide several other benefits for lab professionals. Costs associated with mechanical failure can be prohibitive both in terms of repairing the compressor system and replacing contents that spoiled due to its failure. Because solid-state refrigeration units operate without a compressor, it has eliminated the frictional forces that can cause weak points in the system to fail, thereby reducing operation and maintenance costs that would result from replacing or maintaining faulty systems. 

Additionally, energy efficiency and sustainability have become driving factors in purchasing decisions. Although they only make up a small fraction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere overall, coolants like hydrofluorocarbon are the fastest growing emissions—increasing by up to 10 percent each year due to the proliferation of refrigeration and air conditioning, which is still a new convenience in many parts of the developing world. Companies, organizations and research facilities are looking for alternatives to reduce operating costs and phase out toxic greenhouse gases emitted from refrigeration units. As companies try to develop alternatives to HFCs that are less toxic and less harmful to the environment, they will need to look beyond traditional models that rely on compressors, condensers and related parts. Solid-state refrigeration is one such alternative that is non-toxic and less harmful to the environment because it uses CO2, a non-hazardous and natural refrigerant. Using this model instead, companies are able to completely cut out the compressor and use non-toxic refrigerants, making solid-state a very sustainable option to displace incumbents. The result offers a faster and more direct approach to achieving sustainable refrigeration options instead of using incremental approaches to achieve the end goal.

Looking ahead

Advances in technology will continue to play an important role in standardizing temperature control. Despite the fact that labs continue to use outdated technologies that present a significant risk of mechanical failure and human error, many are in search of alternatives to help mitigate these risks and offer more efficient and manageable approaches to cooling. This effort is encouraging for those in search of more accurate, cost-effective and safer research options moving forward.

Looking ahead, the effort to improve temperature control procedures and standards on a large scale will require continued action on multiple fronts. Additionally, more researchers and other laboratory professionals must look for advanced technologies, products and protocols that can help them improve temperature control and make the freezing process error-proof. To do this effectively, laboratory and research professionals must recognize the essential benefits and impact that these efforts will have on research and testing outcomes while actively supporting the use of alternative technologies that can improve results.