Patent application title: Endless Chain Frozen Vial Storage Module
Michael Paul Henne (Frederick, MD, US)
Vladimir Lebedev (Frederick, MD, US)
Maxim Didenko (Germantown, MD, US)
IPC8 Class: AF25D2502FI
Class name: Supports: cabinet structure with exhibitor, indicator or sample with contents indicia
Publication date: 2014-05-29
Patent application number: 20140145574
A modular freezer unit comprising a movable portion such as a belt,
track, or chain connected to a plurality of wells, each well capable of
containing materials to be stored in the freezer is disclosed. The unit
further comprises a tracking means such as a bar-code, or radio-frequency
identification reader that is capable of reading suitable tags on each
container of materials stored in a well. A motor that operates to move
selected wells to an access point in response to user input may be
integral to the unit, or otherwise connected to the movable portion. The
access point can be opened by a user so that the entire freezer does not
have to be opened in order for materials to be placed therein or removed.
The unit may upload information about its contents to a database so
samples from multiple units can be tracked.
1. A drawer which is suited for placement within a refrigerated unit
comprising a front panel, a back panel, a left panel, a right panel, a
bottom panel, and a top panel wherein the front panel comprises an
insulated material and further comprises an access point; said access
point comprising a movable door that allows a user to access the interior
of the access point; said drawer further comprising an outer surface and
an inner compartment; said drawer also further comprising a plurality of
storage wells capable of movement along a closed-loop path contained
within said inner compartment.
2. The drawer of claim 1 further comprising a scanning means capable of identifying tags or codes placed on items which are placed in one of the said wells and correlating this identification data with the items' location data in relation to said closed-loop track.
3. The drawer of claim 1 wherein an actuator means for causing the movement of said storage wells along said path acts is controlled by a computer interface accessible by the user.
4. The drawer of claim 2 in which said location information and the said identification data is correlated to additional information about the contents of said items placed in said wells in a database accessible remotely from the refrigerated unit or it's constituent drawers.
CLAIM OF PRIORITY
 Applicant claims priority to Non-provisional application number #61/614,227 filed on, or about, Mar. 3, 2012 entitled "Endless Chain Frozen Vial Storage Module."
FIELD OF THE INVENTION
 The subject matter of this application relates to modular units ("unit" or "units") that can be reversibly inserted into a freezer so that the materials housed in the units are held at the temperature of the freezer. The units comprise front, back, bottom, top, right and left sides. The units can be placed inside a freezer and locked in place so that the front side of the unit forms a portion of the external face of said freezer. The front side of the unit comprises an access point that can be opened to permit limited access to the contents of the unit. The units further contain a plurality of wells connected to a means for moving a selected well to the access point. Further, the units may further comprise a tracking means such as a bar-code, or Radio-frequency identification reader that can scan appropriate tags on the contents of each well and upload this information to a database so that the location of a specific item can be remotely tracked.
 Specifically, the disclosed units are most commonly used in laboratories to contain samples of materials that need to be stored at temperatures lower than those encountered in a typical kitchen freezer, often as low as -20° C. or -80° C. Consequently, these freezers require more energy, and are more expensive to operate than the usual household freezer. The escape of cold air when these freezers are opened can cause temperature fluctuations and require additional energy to bring the freezer back to it's target operating temperature when closed.
 Chemical reaction rates slow as the temperature drops. That simple maxim explains why car batteries sometimes fail in cold temperatures, and why refrigerated food spoils much more slowly than that stored at room temperature. If one has stored milk, or another more sensitive foodstuff on the door of a refrigerator, one may have noticed that the temperature irregularity encountered by food stored in the door decreases the life of the foodstuff.
 A lack of temperature consistency due to opening the door of a refrigeration unit can be bothersome and wasteful if it results in milk spoiling faster or in ice cream forming crystals, but it can be disastrous when encountered in scientific laboratory freezer units that may house several hundred thousand dollars worth of biological or chemical samples, many of which may be irreplaceable.
 Freezers used for storing delicate scientific samples often house those samples in racks containing boxes comprising several dividers so that samples stored in microcentrifuge tubes or similar vessels can be organized therein. In practice, a scientist or laboratory technologist would prepare samples and carry them to a freezer, which would need to be opened, releasing some of the chilled air, while the person located the rack containing the box appropriate for containing the samples. In practice, the temperature of the freezer may increase several degrees while the person locates the appropriate place to place the samples. The time that the freezer is open can be greater when the user has to locate samples to be removed. Occasionally, the time needed to keep a freezer open can extend for several minutes if the samples to be removed are located in several different boxes in different racks, or if the sample tubes or boxes were moved. Where multiple users require access to the same freezer, the problems associated with locating a specific sample can increase if people move the racks or boxes to accommodate their individual storage needs. Further, manually updating a schematic of where each sample is located introduces the possibility of human error causing the position of samples to be misstated.
 Some designs of freezer automation are known in the art. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive listing of prior art patents, but merely demonstrative of the types of patents in the refrigerator-automation art. Certainly, other art exists.
 U.S. Pat. No. 3,719,055 to Shapley et al., discloses a tunnel-type freezer using a belt suitable for containing un-packaged products and keeping them separate.
 U.S. Pat. No. 4,944,162 to Lang et al., discloses a food freezer using an endless conveyor belt that has a straight path portion, and a helical portion, so that the transition between these portions is smooth.
 U.S. Pat. No. 5,247,810 to Fenty, discloses a conveyor that moves food products along a helical path in a freezer.
 U.S. Pat. No. 5,277,301, also to Fenty is a division of his '810 patent.
 U.S. Pat. No. 5,343,715 to Lang discloses another helical conveyor refrigeration system comprising mechanical and cryogenic cooling apparatus that reduces moisture loss during the freezing process.
 U.S. Pat. No. 7,716,935B2 to Kim et al., discloses a refrigerator comprising a number of storage portions and a system for tracking either food in the storage portions, or the portions themselves and, inter alia, adjusting storage conditions within each portion.
 U.S. Pat. No. 7,680,691B2 to Kimball and Leonard discloses an inventory management system using RFID tags placed on the items to be tracked. The claims, in particular, are drawn towards monitoring and managing perishable food products.
 The subject matter of this application is semi-automated object retrieval and storage devices. In particular, the subject matter discloses a modular freezer unit that can be reversibly attached to a freezer and which comprises a plurality of wells placed on a belt, track, chain or similar movement means so that the position of the wells can be moved in response to user input controlling a motor operating on the movement means. Further, the modular freezer unit comprises a access point which a user can open to retrieve, or place, materials into a well or wells. A bar-code reader, a radio-frequency identification reader, or similar scanning means is present in the modular freezer unit. Materials placed in the freezer are marked in a manner than can be detected by unit's scanning means. Following the placement or removal of materials into the freezer via the access point, all of the readable marks on the materials are scanned by the scanning means to confirm the contents of the unit. This data on the location of specific samples can be uploaded to a database.
 It is an object of the subject matter of this application to provide a modular unit that can be reversibly attached to a larger storage rack, such as may be integrated into an upright refrigerator or freezer, so that materials inside the unit are cooled to equilibrium with the rest of the cooling unit when the unit is attached to the freezer.
 It is a further object of the subject matter of this application to provide a semi-automated manner of moving materials inside the modular unit so that materials to be retrieved can be moved to an access point so that the entire cooling unit does not have to be opened, further, spaces available to hold materials in the freezer can be moved to the access point. In this manner, energy costs are reduced by reducing the opening of the cooling until to a small space, and by largely eliminating the need to search within a cooling unit for the desired materials.
 It is yet a further object of the subject matter of this application to provide a modular unit equipped with a scanning means so that materials stored in a modular unit can be indexed and their location tracked in a searchable database.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
 FIG. 1 is a perspective view of an embodiment of the modular unit.
 FIG. 2 is a perspective view of another embodiment of the modular unit with the door to the access point closed.
 FIG. 3 is cut-away top view of an embodiment of the modular unit, showing the internal components.
 FIG. 4 is a cut-away front view of an embodiment of the modular unit, showing the internal components.
 FIG. 5 is an illustration of several units reversibly installed into a refrigerated cabinet.
 FIG. 6 is an illustration of a user accessing stored samples within an embodiment of the modular unit.
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF A PREFERRED EMBODIMENT
 The following description and drawings referenced therein illustrate an embodiment of the application's subject matter. They are not intended to limit the scope. Those familiar with the art will recognize that other embodiments of the disclosed method are possible. All such alternative embodiments should be considered within the scope of the application's claims.
 Each reference number consists of three digits. The first digit corresponds to the figure number in which that reference number is first shown. Reference numbers are not necessarily discussed in the order of their appearance in the figures.
 This application discloses a modular unit (the "unit") suitable for insertion into and removal from a refrigerated cabinet. In a preferred embodiment, the unit has a front panel (101), a back panel (102), a right panel (103), a left panel (104), a bottom panel (105), and a top panel (106), each said panel having an inner surface and an outer surface, and the panels forming a cuboid having an inner compartment. Tracks (107) may be located on the outer surface of one or more of the unit's panels so that said tracks interact with other tracks located on the refrigerated cabinet to guide the unit into place. A reversible locking mechanism may be located either on the unit itself, or may be located on the refrigerated cabinet to hold the unit in place in the refrigerated cabinet. In most embodiments, the back, right, left, bottom, and top panels of the unit may be constructed of a thermal conducting material to allow for the inner compartment of the unit to reach thermal equilibrium with the interior of the refrigerated cabinet. In most useful embodiments, the unit's front panel is comprised of a thermal insulating material suitable for the door of the refrigerated cabinet. Embodiments of the unit may also comprise a wireless or wired networking means to allow the upload of data to a real or virtual computer; further, the unit may comprise an electrical conduit coupling means (111) capable of reversible coupling with the refrigerated cabinet . In a preferred embodiment, the unit's front panel further comprises a interface (108) controlling the mechanics contained within the unit. This interface may be a touch-screen, keyboard, or other suitable data-input means. Other embodiments may be controlled through a single such interface on the refrigerated cabinet, or may be controlled remotely via a wired, or wireless network.
 All useful embodiments of the unit further comprise a user-accessible access point (109, 201) located on the unit's front panel's outer surface that allows a user to have access to a portion of the unit's inner compartment. In one embodiment , the access point is located in a outward protuberance of the unit's front panel (201) and comprises a door (202) that can be opened to allow access by a user (601). In another embodiment the access point (109) is flush with the outer surface of the unit's front panel (101) when its access door (110) is closed. Other embodiments of the access point may exist, and all should be considered to be within the scope of this application.
 The unit's inner compartment comprises a plurality of wells (301) suited for the containment of the materials (302) placed within the refrigerated cabinet. Most commonly, the wells would be of a size intended to hold a 1.5 mL microcentrifuge tube, although other embodiments may have wells of other dimensions appropriate for their intended contents.
 The wells are mounted on a closed-loop (303) suspended within the unit by motorized or non-motorized wheels (304). The wheels also change the direction of the closed-loop means to maximize the length of the closed-loop that can be held within a unit. In one preferred embodiment the closed-loop is a roller chain and the wheels are sprockets. In all useful embodiments, a motor (305) acts in response to commands entered via the interface (108) on at least one of the wheels to cause the closed-loop to move. In one embodiment, the motor is a step motor that is located within the unit's inner compartments. In other embodiments, the motor may be partially, or completely, located outside of the unit but still act on at least one wheel to cause the closed-loop to move. In one useful embodiment, a portion of the closed-loop is blank, as it either contains no wells. When not in use, the motor acts to position the blank portion within the access point (110, 201) to ensure that samples are not stored for prolonged periods within the access point. It should be evident that other designs of the closed-loop system described, such as a slotted track system, could be readily grasped by those with familiarity of the relevant arts. Such differences should be considered within the scope of this application and its claims.
 Most useful embodiments of the unit further comprise a scanning means (306) located within the unit's inner compartment. In a most preferred embodiment, the scanning means is a radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader although other scanning means could also be used.
 In use, multiple units can be placed in a single refrigerated cabinet (501) so that the units' front panels (101) are flush with one another, thereby forming a wall of the refrigerated cabinet. Individual units can be removed as needed, and replaced with other units, or by lower-cost, stand alone front panels, to allow for the movement of whole units without compromising the temperature inside the refrigerated cabinet. In those cases in which the access points are located in outward protuberances (201) of a unit's front panel, those protuberances may be staggered so that the door (202) for each access point can be opened without interfering with another protuberance.
 One typical workflow for an individual using the units would involve the user placing samples of materials to be cooled in microcentrifuge tubes and placing tags, such as RFID tags, on each tube. One would then scan the RFID tag with a reader that is connected to a computer or touchscreen interface and enter relevant identifying information into a database such as, inter alia: date of creation, date of expiration, experiment identification, and tube contents. This information may be stored locally, or uploaded to a centralized database capable of being accessed remotely. The most useful workflows will use a centrally accessible database.
 The user would take the samples to a refrigerated cabinet and enter the number of samples to be placed in a unit into the local interface. This may be entered on a single unit, if the embodiment is one wherein each unit comprises its own interface; or it may be entered on an interface located on, or near, or perhaps even far from, the refrigerated unit.
 If the unit contains no other samples, the motor engages and turns the wheel, causing wells to move to the access point, which is opened by the user. When the microcentrifuge tubes are placed in the well, the access point is closed. At that point, the motor engages and causes the entire length of the closed-loop, and therefore, all the wells, and microcentrifuge tubes to move past the scanning means. The scanning means detects the tag or code on each microcentrifuge tube and updates the database with location data corresponding to each tag.
 The database therefore contains information about the contents of each microcentrifuge tube, as well as information about the tube's position in the unit, and optimally, with information about the exact unit's position in the refrigerated cabinet, and the location of the refrigerated cabinet. The database also contains data on what wells in any unit are available to hold materials.
 In the likely event that a user approaches a refrigerated cabinet with a number of tubes greater than the available contiguous open space, the database can send a series of commands to the unit to move as many non-continuous free wells are needed to the unit's access point of a unit. If not all of the materials can go into a single unit, multiple units made be used to hold all the microcentrifuge tubes. Since the entirety of the samples are scanned when the access point is closed and position data is updated as sample move past the scanning means, there is no need to rearrange samples so that they are in any particular order, the database will always be able to find a selected sample. In fact, if one changes the position of a sample, for whatever reason, this will be detected and the database updated. For centralized databases, connecting multiple refrigerated cabinets across the world, the location of particular microcentrifuge tube could be accessed from anywhere in the world, and even brought to the access point.
 The process of accessing one or more samples is somewhat similar. The database is queried to locate the desired microcentrifuge tube(s). The user may then go to the correct refrigerated cabinet location and identify the unit that contains the desired tube. The user could then enter a command on the unit's interface (such interface would most commonly either be located on the unit itself or on the refrigerated cabinet itself, although it could be located anywhere as long as it is wired, or wirelessly, networked to the unit), and the motor would act on the chain or track to bring the desired microcentrifuge tube to the access point. The user then, can open the access point and remove the sample. If the user were to grab the wrong one, and put it back in the wrong position, the scanning of the entire inventory of the unit would result in that error being corrected for in the database. In the event that an all of the samples contained in a unit need to be moved to another location, the unit can be disconnected from the refrigerated cabinet and placed in cold storage while it is moved to a different compatible refrigerated cabinet. Once it is in its new location, the connected database would updated with the new location information.