Simulation and testing for safe transport of perishable products
An energy-efficient refrigerated container that safely transports perishable products such as fruit, vegetables, medicines and flower bulbs, by rail, at a temperature range from extremely low to extremely high. This is one of the outcomes of Fresh on Demand (2019-2022), a public-private partnership (PPS) coordinated by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research.
Often called the New Silk Road, the many thousands of kilometres of railway line that connects Europe and China has been key to continuing the trade between these regions that began over a thousand years ago. "This trade has been increasing in recent years and, for sustainability reasons, goods are carried more often by rail," says Hanno Reeser, Director Strategic Management at transport company Essers, a major European Logistics provider. "In 2016 there were 2,000 trains on this route; in 2021 there will be over 12,000."
Transport by rail emits relatively little CO2 compared to transport by road or air. So Essers is increasingly putting China-bound goods on trains. "But with perishable products such as fruit, vegetables, medicines and flower bulbs – the core business of many of our customers – we did not dare to do that," says Reeser. The route runs through remote areas with extreme weather conditions: "Temperatures of +50C and -20C are common on this route. And there was no equipment available that could cope with these extreme variations."
Reeser sat down with a team from Thermo King – specialists in transport refrigeration – and container-builder Unit 45, suppliers to Essers. "We hoped that, together, we might come up with a solution to the problem." One thing led to another and now, together with Anthos – the Royal Trade Association for Nursery Stock and Flower Bulbs – they are partners in Fresh on Demand, a PPS coordinated by Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. "We already had a study running with Wageningen, on the refrigerated transport of flower bulbs; shared challenges and needs pointed to creating a joint project."
Measuring and predicting performance
Three years later, a prototype of an energy-efficient refrigerated container is ready, with high insulation values and temperature stability, powered by a diesel engine that can be refilled en route and can operate within this extreme temperature range. "Researchers from Wageningen Food & Biobased Research tested the container and completed wind-tunnel simulations for us," says Alain van Schaik, Business Manager Intermodal at Thermo King. They developed a model to measure and predict the container's performance. What happens, for instance, when one insulation material is replaced by another? And how does the arrangement of the pallets in the container affect the airflow around the products and thus the temperature stability inside the container?
Both van Schaik and Reeser are enthusiastic about the cooperation within the Fresh on Demand project. "When you bring like minds and complementary disciplines together, something beautiful is created. You have to test ideas against each other, says van Schaik. "And with the expertise and facilities of Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, we have been able to do applied research to develop this container."
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