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Laboratory Freezers and Refrigerators: New Technologies are Making an Impact

Lab refrigerators and freezers must be versatile enough to serve diverse markets because a great deal of feature overlap exists within the lab refrigeration market. Yet significant differentiation exists as well.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Lab refrigerators and freezers must be versatile enough to serve diverse markets because a great deal of feature overlap exists within the lab refrigeration market. Yet significant differentiation exists as well.

Clinical labs, which are regulated and accredited, handle valuable patient samples and are increasingly subject to cost pressures; the emphasis is on value. “Among our customers, clinical labs need refrigerators that meet their needs, are supported by a reliable service organization, and have reduced cost of ownership,” observes Alex Esmon, Ph.D., global commercial manager for laboratory refrigerators and freezers at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Asheville, NC).

Value-seeking is not unique to clinical laboratories, but pricing and reimbursement pressures make it more prevalent than in other markets. Concerns for costs over the product’s typical life are causing labs to scrutinize energy rates and consumption, heat and noise generated in small areas, sample compatibility, and storage capacity. Lab managers are becoming adept at assessing the relative benefits and drawbacks of having two smaller units versus one larger one.


“Energy savings is not only a function of power consumption coming out of the wall, but of heat being thrown into the room, which causes the air conditioners— another source of energy consumption—to work harder,” says Dan Hensler, VP of sales and marketing at So-Lo Environmental Equipment (Cincinnati, OH).

Basic research and academic labs have operational requirements and workflows radically different from those of clinical labs, but tight funding has pushed them into a similar value-seeking mode. A major departure is that academics tend to be more conscious of environmental issues, which might cause a shift in purchase strategy, away from pure economics to energy consumption. Ironically, this philosophical shift rarely accounts for the energy footprint of manufacturing a new refrigerator or freezer.

With pharmaceutical and biotech labs, the emphasis is less on price or value and more on maintaining a high performance level. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent emphasis on quality is often perceived as beginning and ending with manufacturing. In fact, FDA guidelines stress quality as an evolving philosophy, beginning with early-stage research and extending through development and production. “Price is not usually a factor for these businesses, because the pressures on them relate to qualification expectations and making the most of billion-dollar investments in capital equipment and drug development,” says Dr. Esmon.

Chemical, manufacturing, and industrial cold storage purchasers may require hazardous storage capability for flames or fumes, but even in this market segment vendors see more value-hunting based on the cost of ownership over the unit’s life. They are also interested in energy savings and must follow internal standard operating procedures, but they are not burdened by heavy regulation.

Managers of academic labs or at companies in unregulated industries have been known to head to the nearest department store and order a kitchen model for cooling “nonessential” samples and ingredients. The temptation, based on sticker price, is natural and intuitive.

Those who have considered sneaking a home fridge into a hallway or some dark corner of their facility in the dead of night, however, should remember the single word that explains why those units are so much less expensive than refrigerators or freezers purchased from our advertisers: performance. Kitchen units chug along for 20 years without maintenance or repair because their operating specifications are much broader than a lab- or industrial-grade fridge/freezer.

Remember that head of lettuce that froze in the crisper, or those leftovers that got moldy on the top shelf ? Temperatures vary widely within home refrigerators, much more so than many samples or reagents can tolerate. And when you open and close your home refrigerator’s door to fetch the milk, the box takes its time to return to its specified temperature range.

These defects are magnified by typical laboratory usage patterns, where a dozen or more people access a refrigerator or freezer multiple times per day. Home refrigerators are not optimized for segregating samples and accessing them easily. It’s no tragedy to spill a bit of gravy on the apple pie, but comingling lab samples or reagents can lead to many hours of lost effort.

Finally, there is the quality most important to Dr. Esmon: ease of ownership, which often comes down to energy consumption. Vendors of lab refrigerators are keenly aware of the trade-off between efficiency and performance, and they have designed their products to ensure maximum end-user benefit. “We still need the same cooling specifications, but we need to achieve them with less energy,” observes Mr. Hensler.

Experts will tell you that, except for environmental considerations and data logging capabilities, laboratory refrigerators and freezers have not changed much in the last decade. That is not to say refrigeration technology has remained stagnant. Numerous technologies, for both small- and large-scale refrigeration, are slowly making their way into products. These include thermoacoustic refrigeration, magnetic cooling, and phase-change gels. Two of the most promising techniques, the Stirling engine and ejector-expansion refrigeration, are already commercial. These technologies promise some combination of lower energy usage and higher efficiency, but most have issues.

“The Stirling engines are quite expensive,” observes Buckner Richerson, VP of international sales at NuAire (Plymouth, MN). “Our units use tried-andtrue ‘cascade’ design, employing highand low-stage compressors to maintain minus-85-degree temperatures reliably and quietly.” Mr. Richerson claims his company’s freezers put out 47 decibels— less than a biosafety cabinet. “Freezer noise can drive you bonkers,” he says.

Sound-sparing designs prove that innovation is alive and well in the world of refrigerators and freezers. NuAire achieves its quiet operation by balancing the operations of its high- and lowstage compressors. “When they don’t fight each other, they work naturally, in sync, and they don’t generate that extra noise,” Mr. Richerson adds.