Every year, hundreds of thousands of premature babies die around the world. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries, and the primary culprit is hypothermia. There is a critical need in many countries for reliable incubators able to maintain a constant temperature around babies even if the electricity goes out.
This situation led Benjamin Rime, a materials science student at EPFL, to devote a semester project and then his Master’s project to developing a heat reserve based on the principle underlying phase-change materials.
Energy from the transformation process
Instead of heating a simple material (water, stone or metal) in order to recover the heat later, the system that Benjamin developed uses a synthetic polymer. It is solid at room temperature and turns to liquid when heated. “Large quantities of energy are involved when changing state,” said Benjamin. “Throughout the phase in which the material solidifies back, it releases heat at a constant temperature of 52°C.”
In order to put this principle to work in a concrete and useful way, Benjamin created a prototype thermoregulator for incubators with support from the EssentialTech program at EPFL’s Cooperation and Development Center.
The GlobalNeonat project, which also includes students from the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon together with industry and academic partners, aims to design a sturdy, reliable and easy-to-use incubator capable of maintaining a sufficient temperature even during blackouts lasting several hours. “It works by melting the phase-change material when the electricity is on,” said Benjamin. “If the power goes out, a small battery-powered fan connected to a simple and rugged electronic regulator takes over and maintains a constant temperature in the incubator.”
Benjamin spent two months in Cameroon this past spring to work on his project. “I visited hospitals and met with medical staff and mothers of premature babies,” he said. “I was shocked to see the way the temperature was maintained in incubators – often by simply placing hot-water bottles a few inches from the baby.”
The hospital staff and the mothers seemed convinced, showing real interest in Benjamin’s project. “The part I dealt with – the regulator – is ready, and my colleagues in Yaoundé still need to finalize the overall design of the incubator and the small electronic regulator for temperature and humidity. Apart from the polymer, all the materials needed can be found there. A completed prototype should be ready this fall.”
Now that Benjamin has graduated from EPFL, the GlobalNeonat project (lien vers le factsheet) is in the hands of the EssentialTech team and its Swiss and African partners. “It is crucial to have local contacts to make this type of project work,” said Klaus Schönenberger, head of the EssentialTech program. “We have enlisted the support of some 200 African pediatricians and have a solid working relationship with numerous researchers.”