Anurudh Ganesan with his Vaxxwagon
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Anurudh Ganesan, 17, with his Vaxxwagon

CREDIT: Daniel Bedell

A Teen’s Lifesaving Invention

More than a million children worldwide die every year from preventable diseases. One teen’s invention could change that.
How Can We Deliver Vaccines to Remote Locations?

Every year, 1.5 million kids around the world die as a result of vaccine-preventable diseases. This is mainly because transporting and storing medicines can be a huge challenge in some countries. Anurudh Ganesan, 17, knows this firsthand. When he was a baby in India, his grandparents carried him across 10 miles of rough

terrain to a health clinic in a remote village so he could receive a polio vaccine. But by the time the family arrived at the clinic, it was too late.

“When we got there, all the vaccines were useless because of high temperatures and lack of refrigeration,” says Anurudh, who immigrated to the U.S. as a child and is now a senior at Clarksburg High School in Maryland.

 Vaccines, he later learned, must be kept at a specific temperature—between 35 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit—to remain effective. If the medicine gets too warm or too cold, it spoils and won’t work. But refrigerating vaccines requires electricity or ice, resources that many developing countries lack. In fact, an estimated 1.2 billion people in the world don’t have access to reliable electricity, according to the United Nations Foundation.

Although Anurudh eventually received the vaccine he needed, his experience as a baby—and the sad reality that so many other children aren’t as lucky—prompted him to take action. He invented Vaxxwagon, a portable vaccine-carrying device that generates its own power. Vaxxwagon is designed to keep lifesaving medicines at the proper temperature as they’re delivered in remote areas around the world.

Taking Apart the Refrigerator

Anurudh first got his idea for Vaxxwagon in 2014. He read several textbooks to learn everything he could about refrigeration and vaccines. After completing his research, he began formulating his ideas on paper. 

The biggest challenge was figuring out how to keep something refrigerated without electricity. Anurudh took a refrigerator apart to reverse engineer the process of refrigeration.

Through this effort, he figured out a way to use wheels to power a refrigeration system for about eight hours without using electricity or ice. The design would allow the entire rechargeable cooling system to be pulled by a bicycle, a car, or an animal to areas in need of vaccines (see “How Vaxxwagon Works,” below).

Eventually, Anurudh took his design to professors at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland for advice. Not only did they confirm that Vaxxwagon could work, they offered him funding to help build it. 

Once the model was built, Anurudh put it to the test. He ran Vaxxwagon on a treadmill for six hours, and then let it sit idle for five hours. He found the vaccines inside the device remained at the correct temperature for another four hours. Vaxxwagon worked.

Perfecting the Vaxxwagon

Today, after refining a half-dozen prototypes, Anurudh has a patent pending for his latest design. He also won an award at the 2015 Google Science Fair. And last year, he demonstrated how it worked for President Obama at the White House Science Fair.

Anurudh says his ultimate goal is to sell Vaxxwagon to relief organizations. 

Aid groups like Unicef provide more than 100 million vaccinations per year, mainly in Africa and Asia, but tens of millions still lack access to immunizations (see chart, below)

“In my mind,” Anurudh says, “Vaxxwagon will be a success as soon as it saves a life. If it can save one life, it can save many more.”

Anurudh, who in the fall will attend the University of Pennsylvania, says his advice for other teen inventors is simple.

“Don’t give up on your ideas,” he says. “Always try to help others with your projects. That’s the point of engineering—to help people.”

Countries With the Most Unvaccinated Children, 2015

1. India 2.48 million

2. Nigeria 1.9 million

3. Pakistan 1.06 million

4. Philippines 711,000

5. Dem. Rep. of the Congo 538,000

6. Indonesia 491,000

7. Iraq 325,000

8. South Africa 300,000

9. Angola 235,000

10. Chad 229,000

SOURCE: World Health Organization

  • 1

    The COLD CHAMBER holds vaccines.

  • 2

    PRESSURE GAUGES display the pressure of the refrigerant— the gas that keeps the vaccines cold

  • 3

    THERMOMETERS show the temperature within the cold chamber.

  • 4

    The COMPRESSOR squeezes the refrigerant into a small space. When the refrigerant later expands, it cools, chilling the cold chamber

  • 5

    The WHEEL turns the gears to operate the compressor.

CREDIT: Daniel Bedell

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