Why Is Dry Ice Suddenly So Important

You’ve likely heard of dry ice before, or maybe had a fancy cocktail that has it bubbling away. But dry ice has lately become a focal point in the news, as it’s unique properties mean it can keep things very cold without the melted mess of regular ice.

The BioNtech/Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine needs to be stored and transported at -70ºC, and dry ice is the perfect medium to ensure the life-saving drugs are usable when they reach their destination. However, Reuters reports that the urgency for dry ice in the US has caused a national shortage, hampering efforts to transport the vaccine to rural areas.

But what exactly is dry ice? Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide, and it’s surface temperature of -78.5ºC means that when it melts it transforms directly into a gas, skipping the liquid phase completely – hence ‘dry’ ice.

Because it doesn’t melt and can be produced in solid blocks or pellets, it is the ideal choice in the transportation of foods and medicines.

It is so cold, that it needs to be handled with special gloves to avoid frostbite, and it needs adequate ventilation as the gaseous CO2 can be hazardous in enclosed spaces.

Of the vaccines for the coronavirus being developed, the Pfizer and Moderna candidates have led the charge, and the Pfizer vaccine is already being used in the UK. The Moderna vaccine can survive in temperatures between 2ºC to 8ºC for up to 30 days.

However, the Pfizer vaccine needs much more advanced refrigeration and needs to be stored at -70ºC. This is where the urgent need for dry ice comes in, to ensure the correct temperatures are maintained during transportation and storage before it is distributed.

Once the vaccines reach their destination, Pfizer says they can be refrigerated for up to five days in a warmer temperature range of 2ºC to 8ºC, the same range as the Moderna vaccine. But once thawed, the Pfizer vaccines can’t be frozen again. 

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