Refreshing concept

An environmentally friendly alternative to the traditional vending machine bottles its own drinks. Dave Wilson reports

Most people take the cold drinks they buy from vending machines for granted. But don’t include Adam Green, founder of The Green Drinks Company, among them.

Recognising the impact that transportation of bulky cans and bottles has on the environment before they are dispensed from conventional vending machines, he created a more environmentally friendly solution.

The results of his company’s development efforts is called Pouchlink, a machine based on the simple notion that if a drink could be packaged inside the vending machine – rather than hundreds of miles away in a factory and then transported before being dispensed – the carbon footprint of the system would be reduced by around 75 per cent.

To make that concept a reality, the Pouchlink vending machine operates much like a mini drink-bottling factory – it takes fruit-juice concentrate, mixes it with freshly filtered and chilled water from the mains and then dispenses it into a re-sealable pouch.

The pouch itself can be made to hold a range of drink sizes and uses a gusset structure that opens up when filled to form a bottle-shaped package. Retaining its shape until the consumer has finished with it and being fully resealable, the package can easily fit into car cup holders to provide all the convenience of a PET bottle.

One of the most innovative aspects of the new system is the way in which the empty pouches have been packaged. Since they are flat packed, they take up very little space inside the machine and hence increase the storage capacity. More innovative yet is the use of a bespoke mechanical plastic hook and pin arrangement that connects all the spouts of the packages together on the drum, in the same way that cartridges are linked together in a machine-gun belt.

The innovative Pouchlink vending system operates much like a mini drink-bottling system

’The result of using a hook and pin attached to the top of the pouches means that one pouch can be moved towards the filling station inside the machine while the bag following is carried along behind it, ready to be filled when necessary, obviating the need for expensive sensors to track the pouches as they move through the machine,’ explained Green.

Once a drink has been selected by a user, a pouch is detached from the spool, after which it is moved to a filling station where the cap on the pouch is removed. The selected pouch is then filled with a drink prepared from chilled mains filtered water and concentrate before it is resealed and dispensed from the machine through a serving chute.

drinks_machine.

The new machine is claimed to be the first of its kind that is capable of delivering unpreserved cold aseptically filled product. However, during its development phase, Green quickly realised that he would need to develop a means to eliminate all possibilities that the juice concentrate might be contaminated from microbes in the environment.

To do so, the company used what is known as ’bag-in-box packing’ – the boxes loaded into the machine contain bags of fruit-juice concentrate that is used in conjunction with the filtered water to make a drink. As simple as it sounds, there was the added challenge of extracting the juice from the bag in the box without allowing any contaminant to return to the bag.

The solution was the development of a bespoke mixing system that comprises a one-way valve whose spindles sit inside a manifold into which filtered water is pumped. When a drink is requested, water starts to flow through the manifold and only then is concentrate pumped through the valve spindles, allowing the water to flow directly over them.

After the concentrate and water have been mixed in the desired quantity, water continues to flow through the manifold for the last few seconds of the filling cycle, flushing any remaining concentrate through it and into the pouch, cleaning the valve’s spindles as it does so.

’The manifold is then clean for the next vend – there is no syrup concentrate left in the manifold to contaminate the next drink, which enables us to deliver multiple flavours from the same filling head,’ said Green.

When the bag and box containing the juice concentrate is empty, the tip of the one-way valve can be pulled out of the manifold, and can be disposed of together with the bag and box, and the tube that connects it to the valve, safe in the knowledge that the disposable item is completely clean.

“As we are not using energy to chill the system, it only uses a quarter of the energy of a conventional one”
ADAM GREEN, GREEN DRINKS CO.

As novel as the packaging and filling system are, they are by no means the only innovative technology used inside the machine. Equally impressive is the fact that the machine is kept at ambient temperature except for a block chiller in its base which is used to cool the filtered water to around six degrees.

’Because we are not using any energy to chill the system, the Pouchlink system only uses a quarter of the energy of an equivalent conventional canor bottle-vending machine,’ said Green.

However, the company realised that because of that very fact, any water that remained in the circuit in all of the wetted surfaces might allow biofilm to grow over an extended period of time, potentially causing a health hazard.

’To combat that, we have developed an automated system inside the machine which, at predetermined times, puts the machine into a self-clean mode, flagging up a message to the consumer that the machine is then unavailable for use,’ said Green.

During that period, a corona discharge device creates ozone that is pulled into the water circuit through the use of a Venturi system that draws it around all of the wetted surface areas inside the machine.

’The result is that ozonated water is delivered to every point in the machine where there may be any standing water. This is a very effective means of destroying any biofilm and killing any microbiological agent that might build up. Because the operation is performed on an automated basis, it sanitises the machine without the need for the presence of an operator,’ said Green.

At the end of the cleaning cycle, the ozone generator is automatically switched off, after which the ozone dissipates out of solution and is destroyed by a carbon air filter, as the water in the system returns to its naturally pure state, ready to be re-used.

Green said that the cleaning system has been rigorously tested with many pathogens and micro-organisms, and has been shown to be highly effective at destroying them.

The Green Drinks Company has plans to develop a new machine capable of producing carbonated drinks, as well as a control system that would allow consumers to mix their own drinks from a variety of different concentrates.

design essentials

The key facts to take away from this article

  • Pouchlink is a new machine for the vending of drinks
  • It operates like a mini drink-bottling system
  • Bottles and cans would therefore no longer need to be transported over distances
  • The carbon footprint of the system would thus be reduced by 75 per cent