By Keith Norbury

Production was slated to start in October of a B.C.-designed and manufactured vacuum-sealed temperature-controlled shipping unit that occupies the footprint of a standard pallet. CryoLogistics Refrigeration Technology Ltd. engineered and designed its trademarked SnowShip container at its headquarters in Victoria, B.C. Production is taking place at Tycrop Trailers, a Chilliwack, B.C. manufacturer specializing in commercial truck trailers.

The SnowShip combines an environmentally friendly liquid carbon dioxide heat-pump system with dozens of sensors to maintain temperatures to within one degree of the setpoint, which can be as low as -20C, said CryoLogistics founder and President Peter Evans.

Pharma friendly

That just-right Goldilocks zone makes it ideal for shipping a variety of perishable products, including seafood, produce, and even pharmaceuticals. Mr. Evans expressed caution, though, about touting the SnowShip containers as a solution to transporting Covid-19 vaccines “because until a vaccine is finally approved, nobody really knows what the requirements are going to be.”

Unlike other temperature-controlled units, the SnowShip has no compressors, pumps or pulleys — “none of the typical vapour compression components that a reefer has,” Mr. Evans said. The SnowShip’s only moving parts are fans, used for air circulation inside the unit. “So there’s very little in the way of wear and tear and maintenance,” Mr. Evans said. Pressurized cylinders of liquid carbon dioxide control the temperature. “We utilize the pressure differential to allow it to change from a liquid to a solid,” Mr. Evans explained. “The only control mechanism in that line is a solenoid valve that controls the on-off injection of the liquid CO2, and that is powered by a standard 12 volt battery.” That deep cycle lead-acid battery can go for five or six days between charges, he said. “Because of the temperatures that the box is going to operate in can vary between subzero temperatures and 40C, lead-acid gives us the best life cycle on the charge.”

The SnowShip has a tare weight of 1,175 pounds, including four 50-pound CO2 cylinders, and can hold 3,000 pounds of product. Most importantly, it can hold that product to within one degree Celsius of its setpoint temperature for up to several days.

Just like a thermos

The unit can carry products ranging from -30 degrees C to +40 C. Mr. Evans likened it to a thermos in that it doesn’t cool or heat its contents. “It’s intended to maintain the required temperature,” Mr. Evans said. “It is not designed to act as a freezer and to pull down the temperature of a load.”

Its vacuum-insulated aluminum panels are powder-coated on the exterior and have a high-resilience plastic liner that can be cleaned with a power washer. With outer dimensions of four feet wide, 59.5 inches long, and 79 inches high, the SnowShip is a little larger than a kitchen refrigerator. “The box itself can be forklifted, or pallet-jacked, without need for an additional pallet,” Mr. Evans said.

Tycrop Trailers will build 40 of the units in October and another 20 per month after that, depending on demand.

ColdStar Solutions Inc., a Vancouver Island-based trucking company and food wholesaler, plans to buy ten units right away, said Kelly Hawes, ColdStar’s founder and CEO. “But I could see leading up to 40 if it does what I think it’s going to do,” said Mr. Hawes, who also has a personal financial stake in CryoLogistics. ColdStar has been testing prototypes of the technology since CryoLogistics was founded in 2013. But it’s only in the last two years “where we’ve finally got the product very close to where we needed it,” Mr. Hawes said.

LTL saviour

The ShowShip containers address a huge challenge for the LTL — less than truckload — world of how to haul multiple types of products at different temperatures. Mr. Hawes was looking, for example, for a way put a pallet of ice cream, which needs deep freezing, in a trailer also containing produce or meat that needs to be kept from freezing. “That way, we could ensure that the ice cream got to the destination at the right temperature and so did all our other stuff.”

ColdStar moves about 800,000 pounds of food every 24 hours. Its fleet includes about 40 trucks and refrigerated trailers of various sizes. The company also has six warehouses, five of them on Vancouver Island where it does the lion’s share of its business. That includes one 70,000 square foot facility in Nanaimo that is full of dry goods for the independent grocery market.

Mr. Hawes predicted the technology will change the industry and the world by addressing food safety and food security. “Food waste is massive,” Mr. Hawes said. “We need every tool we can get to reduce food waste.”

SnowShip containers not only work in reefer trailers but dry vans as well, Mr. Evans noted. “In fact, more and more, I think we’re going to see an uptake in the dry freight sector,” he said.

During design and testing of the technology, it became apparent that SnowShip is well-suited for transporting pharmaceuticals, Mr. Hawes said. Like Mr. Evans, though, he was cautious about promoting SnowShip as a solution for Covid-19 vaccine transport. “But absolutely, it could be if the requirements end up being in the temperature range that the SnowShip can handle,” Mr. Hawes said nonetheless. Its -20C setting would suit the Covid-19 vaccine candidate from Moderna. And Johnson & Johnson has a Covid-19 vaccine in the pipeline that only needs to be kept in the 2-8 degrees C range typical of most vaccines. Pfizer’s candidate Covid-19 vaccine needs to be stored at -70C, which is beyond the capability of the current SnowShip design. While Mr. Evans noted that liquid CO2 flashes to a solid at -78.6C, CryoLogistics isn’t likely to engineer such a solution without the financial investment of a big organization like Pfizer because of the technical complexity.

Bigger possibilities

Similarly, Mr. Evans held out the prospect of building larger SnowShips the size of standard shipping containers. “If you’ve got enough money, we’ve got the time to develop our core technology — that’s the heat exchange unit that uses the carbon dioxide — and adapt that for larger volumes,” Mr. Evans said. That could include sea cans, truck bodies, or even buildings. Indeed, his late father-in-law Van Thomsen, who was the inspiration for CryoLogistics, had tested the concept on railcars and sea containers. “It performed well in both environments. But it required a lot of carbon dioxide to make it work. And it wasn’t economical. That was one of the reasons he was unable to get that version commercialized.” Now Mr. Evans is poised to commercialize that technology on a smaller footprint. Enabling that are 15 employees as well as $7 million from private investors and government programs.

CryoLogistics is currently focused on the carrier segment, what Mr. Evans calls “that middle ground” of the supply chain that begins with shippers and ends with receivers. “But we’re also talking to both ends of the supply chain, because they have a pretty big stake in the quality of service that they’re getting from the carriers,” Mr. Evans said. He said he even encountered interest from a major railway at a trade show just before the pandemic. Yes, the SnowShips can also work with intermodal containers. However, the current version is not intended for air cargo. “But air cargo is on our to do list,” Mr. Evans said.

Cellular connectivity

The ShowShip isn’t complicated to operate, although Mr. Evans cautioned that “if one doesn’t know the operational procedure, one can get it wrong.” More than 30 sensors on the unit send temperature and other data to a proprietary controller that CryoLogistics built in-house. The controller has a four-button user interface and a digital readout on the unit. More importantly, it’s equipped for Internet of Things capability and can connect with one of several cellular networks. “It communicates its location, its temperature settings and a number of other things via the Internet to the user and to us,” Mr. Evans said. Customers can even download an off-the-shelf app to their smartphone, desktop computer or other device to access the data remotely.

Initially, CryoLogistics will sell the SmartShip containers in the four western provinces before expanding into central and eastern Canada. The third phase will be the Cascadia corridor of the U.S. south to California. “And then the pharma piece is also in the hopper as we speak,” Mr. Evans said.