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United States Patent Application 20110138820
Kind Code A1
Weeth; Frederic R. ;   et al. June 16, 2011

Transportable Product Cooling Apparatus and Method

Abstract

A portable, automated, cold-chain maintaining, cooling apparatus is disclosed. This apparatus comprises one or more portable cooling modules in communication with one or more portable transition modules. The cooling modules have cooling module conveyor apparatus to move containers of product through the module and a product cooling apparatus to provide cooling air to the product. The portable transition module is in communication with each of said one or more portable cooling modules in such a manner to maintain the cold temperature of said cooled product. A transition module conveyor apparatus within the transition module is in communication with the cooling module conveyor apparatus and automatically transfer the product from the cooling modules into the portable transition module.


Inventors: Weeth; Frederic R.; (Pacific Grove, CA) ; Azzopardi; Michael J.; (Salinas, CA)
Serial No.: 639767
Series Code: 12
Filed: December 16, 2009

Current U.S. Class: 62/62; 62/268; 62/380; 62/407; 62/457.1
Class at Publication: 62/62; 62/380; 62/457.1; 62/407; 62/268
International Class: F25D 25/00 20060101 F25D025/00; F25D 25/04 20060101 F25D025/04; F25D 3/00 20060101 F25D003/00; F25D 17/04 20060101 F25D017/04; F25B 19/00 20060101 F25B019/00


Claims



1. A portable, automated, cold-chain maintaining, cooling apparatus comprising: one or more portable cooling modules, each of said one or more cooling modules having length, a width, a height, an entry end, an exit end, a cooling module conveyor apparatus to move containers of product from said entry end to said exit end, and a product cooling apparatus providing cooling air to said product as said product moves from said entry end to said exit end; and a portable transition module having a transition module cooling apparatus, said portable transition module being in communication with each of said one or more portable cooling modules, wherein said communication is configured to maintain cold temperature of said cooled product, said portable transition module having a transition module conveyor apparatus in communication with said cooling module conveyor apparatus to automatically transfer said product from each of said portable cooling modules into said portable transition module.

2. The apparatus of claim 1, wherein said one or more portable cooling modules and portable transition module are transportable.

3. The apparatus of claim 1, wherein said one or more portable cooling modules and portable transition module are secured to one or more trailer apparatus.

4. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein said portable transition module being further defined as being in communication with one or more cold storage containers, wherein said communication is configured to maintain cold temperature of said cooled product.

5. The apparatus of claim 4 wherein said one or more cold storage containers being defined as one or more permanent, fixed foundation buildings.

6. The apparatus of claim 4 wherein said one or more cold storage containers defined as one or more transportable cold storage vehicles.

7. The apparatus of claim 4 wherein said portable transition module is further defined as having a non-automated product handling apparatus.

8. The apparatus of claim 4 wherein said portable transition module is further defined as having product gas treatment apparatus.

9. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein said product cooling apparatus being defined as adapted to create a first cooling air flow across and through said product in a first direction.

10. The apparatus of claim 9 wherein said product cooling apparatus being further defined as adapted to created a second cooling air flow across and through said product in a second direction.

11. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein said product cooling apparatus being defined as a vacuum cooler apparatus.

12. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein said product cooling apparatus being defined as a Hydro-Vacuum cooler adapted to remove heat across and through said product by means of circulating cooled water over the product and condensing water vapor formed by a vacuum.

13. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein said product cooling apparatus being defined as a hydro cooler vacuum cooler adapted to remove heat across and through said product by means of circulating cooled water over the product.

14. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein each of said one or more portable cooling modules having two or more sequential cooling zones, each of said two or more sequential cooling zones having a product cooling apparatus adapted to create a cooling air flow across and through said product in one or more directions relative to said product.

15. The apparatus of claim 14 wherein the direction of the cooling air flow alternates between a first air flow direction and second air flow direction between each of said two or more sequential cooling zones.

16. The apparatus of claim 15 wherein the temperature of the air flow within each of said two or more sequential cooling zones is non-uniform relative to the temperature of the air flow within the remaining two or more sequential cooling zones.

17. The apparatus of claim 15 wherein the rate the air flow within each of said two or more sequential cooling zones is non-uniform relative to the rate the air flow within the remaining two or more sequential cooling zones.

18. The apparatus of claim 14 wherein each of said one or more portable cooling modules further comprising one or more sets of pressure doors to define the interior boundaries of each said two or more sequential cooling zones.

19. The apparatus of claim 18 wherein each of said one or more sets of pressure doors comprising a pair of side pressure doors and a top pressure door.

20. The apparatus of claim 19 wherein each of said pair of side pressure doors comprises a side curved door panel being pivotally secured to the side wall of said portable cooling module cooling module.

21. The apparatus of claim 19 wherein said top pressure door comprises a top curved door panel being pivotally secured to the ceiling of said portable cooling module cooling module.

22. A method for cooling harvested fruits and vegetables located within containers, said method comprising the steps of: providing a portable cooling module having length, a width, a height, an entry end, an exit end; providing a portable transition module in communication with said portable cooling module to maintain cold temperature of said cooled product; providing a cooling module conveyor apparatus within said portable cooling module to move containers of product from said entry end to said exit end; providing two or more sequential cooling zones within said portable cooling module; providing a product cooling apparatus within each of said two or more sequential cooling zones to provide cooling air to said fruits and vegetables as said containers thereof moves from said entry end to said exit end; providing a transition module cooling apparatus to maintain environmental conditions to maintain the cold temperature of said cooled product; and providing a transition module conveyor apparatus in communication with said cooling module conveyor apparatus to automatically transfer said product from each of said portable cooling modules into said portable transition module.

23. The method of claim 22 further comprising the step of providing one or more sets of pressure doors to define the interior boundaries of each said two or more sequential cooling zones.

24. The method of claim 22 wherein the step of providing a product cooling apparatus is further defined as providing cooling air to said fruits and vegetables, wherein the direction of said cooling air alternates between a first air flow direction and second air flow direction between each of said two or more sequential cooling zones.

25. The method of claim 22 wherein the step of providing a product cooling apparatus is further defined as providing cooling air to said fruits and vegetables having a non-uniform rate the air flow relative to the rate the air flow within the remaining two or more sequential cooling zones.

26. The method of claim 22 wherein the step of providing a product cooling apparatus is further defined as providing cooling air to said fruits and vegetables having a non-uniform temperature of air flow relative to the temperature of air flow within the remaining two or more sequential cooling zones.
Description



REFERENCE TO PENDING APPLICATIONS

[0001] This application does not claim the benefit of any pending patent application.

REFERENCE TO MICROFICHE APPENDIX

[0002] This application is not referenced in any microfiche appendix.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

[0003] The present invention is generally directed toward a transportable product cooling apparatus and method. More specifically, the present invention is directed toward a transportable product handling method and apparatus for the post-harvest cooling of perishable fruits and vegetables while sustaining the cold chain.

[0004] Fruits and vegetables are living organisms that continue essential chemical and physiological activities after harvest. These activities can include physiological breakdown, physical injury to tissue, invasion by microorganisms, and moisture loss. Additionally, some fruit can suffer damage while being transported hot from the field. Thus, the time between harvest and cooling to remove field heat and slow plant respiration, otherwise known as the "cut-to-cool" interval, is critical for ensuring the quality and safety of the product.

[0005] The term "cold chain" refers to the uninterrupted temperature management of perishable products in order to maintain quality and safety from the point of post-harvest cooling through the distribution chain to the final consumer. The cold chain ensures that perishable products are safe and of a pleasant quality at the point of consumption. Failing to keep product at the correct temperatures can result in a variety of negative attributes including, among others, textural degradation, discoloring, bruising, and microbial growth.

[0006] Various apparatus and methods to cool perishable products are disclosed in the prior art. U.S. Pat. No. 2,825,211 issued to Gessel discloses the use of a fixed structure, such as a building, to cool, or otherwise known as removing heat, from products. This disclosure, however, has the disadvantage of not being able to rapidly remove the heat from the products, and thus, is not very effective.

[0007] U.S. Pat. No. 4,736,592 issued to Ohling and U.S. Pat. No. 5,789,007 issued to Bianco also disclose permanently fixed cooling buildings having cooling air rooms in a batch processing tunnel cooling systems that employ bi-directional air systems for the purpose of increasing cooling rates and efficiency.

[0008] U.S. Pat. Publ. 2007/0017233 applied for by Hawkins also discloses a cooling system having a step-continuous dual-conveyor tunnel cooling system with sequential cooling zones wherein the air flow direction is reversed.

[0009] The prior art is not without its disadvantages. A permanent building cold-storage facility has a high capital cost, utility is limited by seasonality and distance to the growing fields, and a large volume of cold air must be maintained at significant energy cost. Ohling and Bianco are "in and out" batch product handling systems that do not anticipate continuous process cooling. The Hawkins system is mechanically complex requiring sophisticated automation to control components including doors, air seals, fans, and zone conveyors. Such complexity and automation increases capital costs, repair and maintenance costs, and risk of system breakdown. Most importantly, none of the prior art anticipates a complete transportable cooling system that can cool produce and deliver such cooled produce directly into over the road refrigerated transportation without breaking the cold chain.

[0010] There is a need for an efficient, cost effective, mechanically durable, transportable cooling system that can reduce the cut-to-cool interval while maintaining the cold chain. Such a system can improve food quality and food safety.

BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

[0011] The present invention satisfies the need discussed above. The present invention is generally directed toward a transportable product cooling apparatus and method. More specifically, the present invention is directed toward a transportable product handling method and apparatus for the post-harvest cooling of perishable fruits and vegetables while sustaining the cold chain.

[0012] One aspect of the present invention provides for a portable cooling system that cools fruits and vegetables and maintains the cold-chain for the product. This aspect discloses one or more portable cooling modules and a portable transition module in combination.

[0013] Each of the cooling modules have a length and a width. An entry end allows for the product to be placed into the cooling module wherein it will be cooled. An exit end allows for the cooled product to exit the cooling module and enter uninterrupted into the transition module.

[0014] Within the cooling module, a cooling module conveyor apparatus is located in order to move containers of product from said entry end to said exit end. During its travel through the cooling module, the product is subject to cooling air that is produced by a product cooling apparatus.

[0015] The transition module is in direct communication with the cooling module and is configured to maintain the cold temperature of the cooled product, thereby keeping intact the cold-chain. In this aspect, a transition module conveyor is in communication with the cooling module conveyor apparatus in order to automatically transfer the product from the cooling modules into the transition module.

[0016] The cooling module and transition module are portable. They do not require a fixed base or permanent structure to operate. They can be located next to a field during the harvest of that field and then can be relocated to another field during the harvest of the second field. This allows for a reduction of the "cut-to-cool" time and damage resulting from transportation of hot product. Portability can be provided by incorporating a wheeled chassis into the cooling module and transition module or to allow the cooling module and transition module to be loaded upon a removable structure, such as a dolly or flat bed truck.

[0017] One aspect of the portable transition module of the present invention provides for such module to be in communication with one or more cold storage containers. These containers can be permanent, fixed foundation buildings or can be transportable cold storage vehicles. Further, the communication between the portable transition module and the cold storage container is also configured to maintain cold temperature of the cooled product.

[0018] Other aspects of the portable transition module include having a non-automated product handling apparatus and a product gas treatment apparatus.

[0019] One aspect of the product cooling apparatus of the present invention provides for the creation of cooling air flow across and through the product in one or more different directions. Various alternatives for the product cooling apparatus can include vacuum cooler apparatus, a hydro-vacuum cooler apparatus, and a hydro cooler apparatus.

[0020] One aspect of the cooling module of the present invention provides for having two or more sequential cooling zones, each having a product cooling apparatus adapted to create a cooling air flow across and through said product in one or more directions relative to said product. By having multiple cooling zones, the cooling air flow can be uniform, that is all air is flowing in the same direction, or can be bi-directional, that is air flow can be in opposite directions alternating between the sequential cooling zones.

[0021] One aspect of the two or more sequential cooling zones of the present invention provides for variable dimensions for each cooling zone, that is, the dimension of the cooling zones can be non-uniform. Further, each cooling zone can be equipped to provide non-uniform cooling air flow in the form of non-uniform temperature and non-uniform flow rate.

[0022] Further features of the present invention will be apparent to those skilled in the art upon reference to the accompanying drawings and upon reading the following description of the preferred embodiment.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

[0023] FIG. 1 is a top view of an embodiment of the present invention.

[0024] FIG. 2 is a top view of an embodiment of the cooling module of the present invention.

[0025] FIG. 3 is a side view of an embodiment of the cooling module of the present invention.

[0026] FIG. 4 is an end view of an embodiment of the cooling module showing an embodiment of the product cooling apparatus of the present invention.

[0027] FIG. 5 is an end view of an embodiment of the cooling module showing a second embodiment of the product cooling apparatus of the present invention.

[0028] FIG. 6 is an end view of a third embodiment of the product cooling apparatus of the present invention.

[0029] FIG. 7 is an end view of a forth embodiment of the product cooling apparatus of the present invention.

[0030] FIG. 8 is an end view of a fifth embodiment of the product cooling apparatus of the present invention.

[0031] FIG. 9 is a top view of a second embodiment of the present invention.

[0032] FIG. 10 is a top view of a second embodiment of the cooling module of the present invention.

[0033] FIG. 11 is a side view of a second embodiment of the cooling module of the present invention.

[0034] FIG. 12 is a side view of a third embodiment of the cooling module of the present invention.

[0035] FIG. 13 is a top view of a second embodiment of the cooling module of the present invention.

[0036] FIG. 14 is a rear view of a second embodiment of the cooling module of the present invention.

[0037] FIG. 15 is a top view of an embodiment of the transition module of the present invention.

[0038] FIG. 16 is a side view of an embodiment of the transition module of the present invention.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS

[0039] Before explaining the present invention in detail, it is to be understood that the invention is not limited to the preferred embodiments contained herein. The invention is capable of other embodiments and of being practiced or carried out in a variety of ways. It is to be understood that the phraseology and terminology employed herein are for the purpose of description and not of limitation.

[0040] FIGS. 1-3 illustrates an embodiment 10 of the present invention, which comprises generally a portable cooling module 20 that cools product 34, such as fruits and vegetables, and a portable transition module 50 that maintains the cold-chain for the product during the product's transition from the cooling module into longer term storage or into transportable cold storage vehicles 60.

[0041] Cooling module 20 has a length 22, a width 24 and a height 26. An entry end 28 having an entry way 29 allows for the product 34 to be placed into the cooling module 20 wherein it will be cooled. An exit end 30 having an exit way 31 allows for the cooled product 34 to exit the cooling module 20 and enter uninterrupted into the transition module 50.

[0042] Within the cooling module 20, a cooling module conveyor apparatus 32 moves containers of product 34 from the entry end 28 to the exit end 30. Further, a product cooling apparatus 40 providing cooling air to the product 34 as product 34 moves along the cooling module conveyor apparatus 32. Additionally, cooling module 20 is divided into multiple, sequential cooling zones 92, 94 and 96.

[0043] FIG. 4 illustrates an embodiment of product cooling apparatus 40. This embodiment is located along the interior upper portion of each of the cooling zones 92, 94 and 96 of cooling module 20 and creates a clockwise air flow 42 by utilizing a fan 44 in combination with an evaporator coil 46. Product cooling apparatus 40 cools product 34 by forcing air across and through product 34.

[0044] FIG. 5 illustrates an additional embodiment of product cooling apparatus 40. This embodiment is also located along the interior upper portion of each of the cooling zones 92, 94 and 96 of cooling module 20 and creates a counter clockwise air flow 48 by utilizing a fan 44 in combination with an evaporator coil 46.

[0045] Those skilled in the art will recognize that the fan in combination with the evaporator coil is illustrative of one type of apparatus to cool product 34 and is not meant to be limiting. FIGS. 6-8 illustrate other types of cooling apparatus. FIG. 6 illustrates a vacuum tube cooling apparatus 100 which in operation utilizes refrigerant 102 and a vacuum system 104 to cool product 34. FIG. 7 illustrates a hydro vacuum tube cooling apparatus 110 which in operation utilizes refrigerant 112, a vacuum system 114, water spray 116 and a water reservoir 118 to cool product 34. FIG. 8 illustrates a hydro cooling apparatus 120 which in operation utilizes refrigerant 122, an evaporator coil 124, water spray 126 and a water reservoir 128 to cool product 34.

[0046] As illustrated in FIG. 1, the air flow 42 within cooling module 20 is in a uniform direction, i.e. all in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. One skilled in the art will understand that this is illustrative and is not meant to be limited. As illustrated in FIG. 9, the direction of the air flow or can vary, i.e. alternate between clockwise 42 and counter clockwise 48. By alternating the direction of the air flow, which can be referred to as bi-directional air flow, the cooling of product 34 can be more uniform.

[0047] FIGS. 10-11 illustrates an additional embodiment the cooling module 130 of the present invention. Cooling module 130 is similar to the above embodiment in that it has a length 132, a width 131 and a height 133. Cooling module 130 also has an entry end 135 having an entry way 137 to allow product 34 to be placed therein and an exit end 139 having an exit way 141 allows for the cooled product 34 to exit the cooling module 130 and enter uninterrupted into the transition module 50. Cooling module also includes a cooling module conveyor apparatus 134 and product cooling apparatus 140.

[0048] Additionally, cooling module 130 is divided into multiple, sequential cooling zones 150, 152, 154 and 156. The direction of air flow 134 within each cooling zone can be uniform with respect to the air flow of the other cooling zones or can bi-directional, alternating direction from cooling zone to cooling zone. In order to maximize the thermodynamic conditions as product 34 cools, this embodiment 130 provides for the size of each cooling zone 150, 152, 154 and 156 to be non-uniform in order to accommodate a different amount of product 34 per cooling zone. As illustrated in FIGS. 10-11, cooling zone 150 is dimensioned to accommodate two containers of product 34, while cooling zone 152 can accommodate three containers and cooling zone 156 can accommodate four containers.

[0049] Further, product cooling apparatus 140 located within each cooling zone and is illustrated to include a fan 144 in combination with an evaporator coil 146. Product cooling apparatus 140 provides air flow at variable velocity and temperature relative to the air flow velocities and temperatures within the remaining cooling zones. For example, air flow 136 located within cooling zone 150 may be of a greater velocity than air flow 134 located within cooling zone 154.

[0050] As illustrated in FIGS. 12-14, an additional embodiment of the cooling module 200 is disclosed. This embodiment is similar to the above embodiments and further includes a pair of side pressure doors 210 and a top pressure door 220. These doors 210 and 220 are located between each sequential cooling zone and assist with preventing the air flow contained in each such cooling zone from escaping into the other cooling zones. This is especially important when one cooling zone has a higher air flow velocity or pressure than a neighboring cooling zone. Further, these doors 210 and 220 allow for continuous movement of containers of product 34 through the multiple cooling zones 150, 152, 154 and 156 via cooling module conveyor apparatus 32 while at the same time not allow for any significant transfer of air flow from one cooling zone into a neighboring cooling zone.

[0051] Each side pressure door 210 includes a side curved door panel 212 pivotally secured to a side wall 202 of cooling module 200 by a side pivot hinge 216. Side curved door panel 212 can be constructed from various metals, including stainless steel and rolled into a parabolic curve. Side curved door panel 212 is also dimensioned to be taller than the containers of product 34, preferably substantially floor to ceiling in height. Side pivot hinge 216 allows for the automatic adjustment of the various sizes of containers of product 34 and the side to side movement of product 34 as it travels through cooling module 200. A side door spring 214 is secured to side curved door panel 212 and the side wall of cooling module 200. Tension pressure is provided upon side door portion 212 causing a substantially air tight connection between product 34 and side pressure door 210.

[0052] Top pressure door 220 is similar to side pressure door 210 in that is includes a top curved door panel 222 pivotally secured to the top 204 of cooling module 200 by a top pivot hinge 226. Top curved door panel 222 can also be constructed from various metals, including stainless steel and rolled into a parabolic curve. It is dimensioned to be slightly narrower than the container of product 34 so that the container can fit between the side pressure doors 210. Top pivot hinge 226 allows for the automatic adjustment for various heights of the containers of product 34. A top door spring 224 is secured to top curved door panel 222 and the side wall of cooling module 200. Tension pressure is provided upon top curved door panel 222 causing a substantially air tight connection between product 34 and side pressure door 210.

[0053] As illustrated in FIGS. 15 and 16, an embodiment of portable transition module 50 has a transition module conveyor apparatus 52 contained therein and is in communication with the cooling module conveyor apparatus 32 to automatically transfer product 34 from the cooling module 20 into the transition module 50. In order to maintain the cold chain of product 34, transition module 50 includes a transition cooling apparatus 55 which provides ambient cooling air into the interior of transition module 50.

[0054] Other embodiments of transition module 50 can include various features such as having an apparatus to provide product gas treatment to aid extending the shelf life or the ripening of the fruit.

[0055] Transition module 50 is also in communication with one or more cold storage containers 60. These cold storage containers can be permanent, fixed foundation buildings or transportable cold storage vehicles. After product 34 has been received into transition module 50, it can automatically or manually be moved into cold storage container 60.

[0056] Due to the continued controlled environment from the time product 34 enters cooling module 20, to its transition into transition module 50 and finally into cold storage container 60, the cold chain of the product 34 is maintained.

[0057] Both cooling module 20 and transition module 50 are portable. While embodiment 20 illustrates both cooling module 20 being secured to a trailer apparatus 56 (FIG. 3) and transition module 50 being secured to a similar trailer apparatus 54 (FIG. 7), those skilled in the art will recognize that this is for illustration and is not meant to be limiting. Both cooling module 20 and transition module 50 can be transported via other known transportation methods, such as by way of removable transportation equipment. Due to this portability, the present invention can be moved as close to the fruit and vegetables during harvest as possible, such as alongside the actual fields where the product 34 is being harvested. Once one field has been harvested, the present invention can be relocated to a different field. This portability allows for a decrease in the "cut to cool" time for the harvested product 34 and damage resulting from transportation of hot product 34. Transporting the cooled product in enclosed refrigerated over-the-road trailers rather than unprotected field harvest trucks increases food safety by reducing product exposure to the elements.

[0058] An example of the operation of this embodiment 10, as illustrated in FIG. 1, product 34 is placed into cooling module 20 at the entry end 28. Product 34 travels along cooling module conveyor apparatus 32 and is subjected to cooling air being provided by product cooling apparatus 40. The direction of the air flow provided by product cooling apparatus 40 can be uniform or can vary in direction along the length 22 of cooling module 20. Due to cooling module 20 and transition module 50 being in communication, product 34 automatically moves from cooling module 20 into transition module 50. At this point, product 34 is transferred, automatically or manually, to a cold storage container 60.

[0059] While the invention has been described with a certain degree of particularity, it is understood that the invention is not limited to the embodiments set forth herein for purposes of exemplification, but is to be limited only by the scope of the attached claims or including the full range of equivalency to which each element thereof is entitled.

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