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Advances in Remote Monitoring of Laboratory Freezers

The next wave of remote monitoring solutions will incorporate AI and predictive technologies to better suit users' needs

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Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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Jean Fallacara, managing director of inTEST Thermal Solutions
Credit: Jean Fallacara

Managing editor Lauren Everett speaks with cold storage expert Jean Fallacara about the current limitations of remote monitoring systems for laboratory freezers and what new developments are emerging to combat these issues.

Q: Are there unique challenges with monitoring lab freezers or ultralow temperature (ULT) devices compared to other types of lab equipment?

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A: This is a difficult question due to the fact that two parameters must be evaluated: firstly, that most ULT freezers are located in basements with poor internet signal or in facilities that don’t allow data transmission to flow easily. Secondly, monitoring doesn’t offer any help when an issue occurs with the freezers, leaving users in a state of helplessness or worse, in a position in which they may lose vital samples. 

Often, as soon as an alarm gets triggered, regardless of the level of sophistication the monitoring system holds, the intervention time is what plays a crucial role. Sadly, to this day, no monitoring system has been able to truly forecast the future and to predict potential failure. Ideally, a monitoring system would be able to resolve both these issues as well as offer a human point of view to help support users constantly, no matter the time. Any scientist who holds a fair amount of user experience can tell you that such issues hold no predictability: they have just as much a chance of occurring in the middle of a Monday than they do at 11 pm on a Saturday. Sadly, when luck runs out and users are stuck in these complicated situations, there is often nothing to help them.

Q: What, if any, safeguards are in place to maintain the temperature of ULTs in the event of power outages or other circumstances?

A: Today, most facilities have their ULT freezers on backup generators to prevent any losses in the event of a power outage. By adding LN2 and CO2 backup systems, an increase in the level of security occurs in the case of the failure of a backup generator. 

In the last decade, sample security awareness became popular after Dual Cooling Systems appeared in the market utilizing auto cascade compressors, which are capable of reaching between -70 to 80°C. The idea of offering two auto cascade compressors, one of them as a backup, eventually took over the concept of an old cascade system, which used two interdependent compressors. However, very few manufacturers were able to make these systems fully redundant. Furthermore, refrigerant regulations led to the case of deal breakers. Specifically, a parameter that we often neglect is the pull up time: in the event of a power failure with no LN2 backup, the pull up time rapidly becomes a crucial aspect (pull up time being the time for a freezer with no power to maintain freezing temperatures). 

Why shouldn't monitoring systems be as intelligent as our smartphones?

Specific innovative ULTs have combined VIP panels armed with foam insulation to push the limits even further as well as for pull up times to summit. combining dual cooling, redundancy, and backup power as well as heightened insulation leads to an increase in sample security. The next generations of freezers would ideally offer auto diagnostic and intelligent responses with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). All in all, I am confident that sample security should reach brand new summits in the next couple years. 

Q: Are there different levels of monitoring/notification offered for lab freezers? How does a lab determine what level of service they need?

A: Nowadays, the majority of monitoring systems offer temperature monitoring as well as high/low alarms. It is up to the users to set these two crucial parameters for notifications. However, so many “false” alarms get triggered by users loading their ULTs, scheduled maintenance, and service technology, resulting in an increase of the overall cost of ownership for a freezer. This is partly because sending in an emergency team to remove jeopardized samples costs time and money. Hopefully, the next generation of monitoring systems are going to use AI to assure that any alarm triggered is a real alarm that requires immediate attention. Using virtual reality assistance and communication will further improve quality of monitoring, allowing users to virtually witness what is happening within their freezers, avoiding tragedy.

Q: Can you elaborate on the potential impact of AI and predictive freezer monitoring technology?

A: Most predictive monitoring systems use algorithm calculations that are based upon crucial parameters. These parameters are considered as vital signs toward the “health” of ULT freezers. For example, temperature, amperage, draw, and even gas pressure variations can predict a possible upcoming failure. Today, some systems are capable of monitoring how the freezer is behaving as well as monitoring their environment. Generally, we tend to forget that the freezer’s environment is as important as its integrity. Putting the best freezer in a warm place with little to no air circulation and opening its doors without allowing for recovery will quickly sign off its death sentence. The next generation of ULTs and monitoring systems should follow the unit’s behavior as well as its environment. Algorithm calculation will eventually be replaced by AI/machine learning, assuring that predictions are as accurate as can be.

Q: What are the most common questions lab managers tend to ask when considering the purchase of freezer monitoring systems?

A: One word comes to mind: price! Unfortunately, this is the first parameter. Very few put in perspective that the cost of one single sample in their ULT freezers is often valued as more than the freezer itself. Years of research, human resources, and fundings are accumulated within a single sample. Why not secure it as best we can? The cumulation is far superior to the cost of energy and of the freezers overall. After price, I would say we are most often asked if notifications can be sent directly to their smartphone. To this, we answer that old sensaphone [auto dialer] dealers are part of the past. Notifications are crucial and if you have access to a network and with 5G coming up, notification will be a given! If you turned Instagram and Facebook notifications on, who’s to say your freezer can’t send you alerts as well. But notifications are great if they are valid. How many times do you find yourself turning your notifications off simply because you couldn’t care less about said notifications? If the notifications from the freezer are inaccurate, you’ll also want to get rid of them. 

Q: How is technology for monitoring systems evolving to better serve the needs of all labs? 

A: Our industry is still struggling with proper monitoring, as I’ve mentioned earlier. Though cloud storage has risen to popularity, I personally still believe we have a long way to go. All the data in the cloud monitoring system is collected but not exploited. Don’t get me wrong, cloud monitoring is one step toward the ideal future, but I’m thinking more of a sprint toward it. Web 3.0 is at our door. So many users are tired of being woken up by false alarms. Too many organizations are wasting money and resources when monitoring systems trigger unnecessary alarms or signals. Utilizing AI, virtual reality, and the metaverse in the next steps can truly build a digital transformation in the industry. Society as we know it today is majorly digital with AI everywhere—we are connected every single hour of the day to others. Why shouldn’t monitoring systems be as intelligent as our smartphones? 

Jean Fallacara, engineer in biotechnology with a specialization in virtual reality and augmented reality from MIT, is an expert in cold storage with integrated monitoring systems. Jean is currently managing director for inTEST Thermal Solutions after his R&D group Z-Sciences Corp was acquired in 2021. As an author, he is also known for writing Neuroscience Calisthenics: Hijack your Body Clock.

Note: In an earlier version of this article, Jean referred to a freezer monitoring system as a "sensaphone," but it is in fact called an auto dialer.