A refrigerated shipping container designed and powered by technology invented by Virginia Commonwealth University engineers someday could bring fresh food to people living in food deserts or disaster victims living without power.
The VCU Commercialization Fund chose this project by Stephen Fong, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, as one of six university inventions to fund this fall to improve their odds of getting to market to benefit society. Two projects received a second round of funding in support of their commercialization.
With the launch of the first phase of the One VCU Research Strategic Priorities Plan, the Commercialization Fund was expanded by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation from a total of up to $300,000 awarded annually to $500,000. The awards are given twice a year, in the spring and fall.
At the core of Fong’s modular refrigerator is its use of magnetic refrigeration, an alternative, environmentally friendly refrigeration technology that requires lower energy consumption and less maintenance while also being cheap enough to use in consumer products. The magnetocaloric material’s critical technology was developed by a team including Everett Carpenter, Ph.D., co-director of VCU’s Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Program.
“We’re trying to build sustainable long-term solutions where people can get nutritious food,” Fong said. He is part of the iCubed Sustainable Food Access Transdisciplinary Core, where he identifies and addresses local sustainability issues through an interdisciplinary approach combining technology and socioeconomic factors.
VCU Innovation Gateway staff connected Fong and his concept of refrigerated containers with Carpenter, who is a co-investigator on the project. Initially, Fong said he plans to apply the refrigeration system in a standard 40-foot-long shipping container that would be stationary once dropped off at a site. It could be used in humanitarian relief efforts following earthquakes or hurricanes, or by food banks to address food insecurity in areas with limited access to fresh produce.
For example, according to food bank Promise Land Pastures, which collaborates with the VCU Department of Supply Chain Management and Analytics, there is not a single grocery store in Charles City County’s 204 square miles. Fong says that Charles City’s numerous small farmers could collectively fill three or four shipping containers located at a “food hub,” such as a parking lot, thereby increasing the volume, consistency and variety of foodstuff available to residents or even larger purchasers, such as public-school districts.
The second phase of development will focus on producing a mobile refrigerated system for shipping and trucking applications. A magnetic refrigeration system can theoretically operate using 30% less energy than a comparable conventional refrigeration system, leading to better portability and a smaller size that would lend itself to shipping.
We’re trying to build sustainable long-term solutions where people can get nutritious food.
In addition to Fong’s device, these other projects recently received funding:
College of Engineering Dean Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and colleagues won renewed funding to further their work in designing new biodegradable materials that rapidly integrate into the body. The project would provide a way for orthopedic surgeons replacing bone with an implant to incorporate a routinely used antibiotic into a polymer hydrogel (invented by VCU and Georgia Tech researchers) that allows for the timed release of medications.
Carlos Castano, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, was funded to study a new method to modify the surface of metallic powders used for sintering, a process in which powders are converted into solid masses without being liquified. He hopes the work will expand the technology to coat metallic, ceramic and polymeric powders. The work also aims at improving the quality of the materials produced while increasing the scale. He says this will open a window for broader applications in solar energy, providing access to clean water, developing efficient carbon sequestration methods and engineering better medicines.
Youngman Oh, Ph.D., a professor of pathology, biochemistry and molecular biology in the School of Medicine and director of the Cancer and Metabolic Disorder Lab, will use his renewed award to continue work to push an investigational biologic, a variety of product derived using biotechnology from human, animal or microorganisms, toward Food and Drug Association approval to move into clinical trials as a targeted antibody therapy for triple-negative breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of disease that accounts for about 15% of all breast cancers diagnosed and disproportionately affects Black women. Patients with this cancer have few options for treatment other than chemotherapy after surgery.
A team led by Wei-Ning Wang, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, in collaboration with Ping Xu, Ph.D., a professor in the VCU School of Dentistry, and mechanical and nuclear engineering doctoral student Zan Zhu won support to develop a comfortable, three-layered mask that uses chemical reactions and electrical charges to kill microbes, including the coronavirus particle.
Guizhi “Julian” Zhu, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics, won support to develop small circular mRNA vaccines. Linear mRNA vaccines are limited by their large size, complicated manufacturing, shelf life and need for extreme cold storage. Zhu seeks to build a small circular mRNA vaccine, which shows promise in treatment or prevention of not only viral infections, but also cancer, specifically for melanoma immunotherapy.
“Innovation Gateway is pleased to support these VCU inventors, whose projects demonstrate a commitment to the university’s efforts to improve the human condition through the four initiatives of the One VCU Research Strategic Priorities Plan: enriching the human experience, achieving a just and equitable society, optimizing health and supporting sustainable energy and environments,” said Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., senior executive director of Innovation Gateway.
Innovation Gateway facilitates the commercialization of university inventions for the benefit of the public by fostering VCU’s culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, helping advance inventions to a more mature and licensable stage, and developing strategic industry and investor relationships. “Over the last five years, we will have more than $1.9 million in funding to 59 projects, more than $19 million in follow-on funding, and nine licenses, including launching five Virginia-based startup companies,” Metcheva said.