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Nebraska-made Hand Sanitizer

In mid-March 2020, while schools were closing and the country was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Hunter Flodman, an associate professor of practice in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and technical advisor for Nebraska Ethanol Board (NEB), and Jan tenBensel, chair of the NEB, were crafting a plan to help create what became 200,000 gallons of hand sanitizer for essential institutions.

At the time, the virus was running rampant in communities all across the State, there was no vaccine available, and hand sanitizer was becoming increasingly difficult to find. Additionally, people were asked to distance themselves and stay indoors, so the need for ethanol-blended fuels declined. The plan became to use the excess ethanol Nebraska's producers found themselves with to make hand sanitizer. 

“After hearing about shortages of hand sanitizer, we hoped we could find a way to overcome some of the obstacles our fuel-grade ethanol producers were facing — including navigating the FDA’s regulations,” Flodman said. “We also knew the State of Nebraska had the resources to produce large quantities of hand sanitizer because of our large ethanol industry. We wanted to help and so we brought those private and state agencies together with the university to accomplish the task.”

The project required a partnership with the University's Food Processing Center, who registered with the Food and Drug Administration as an over-the-counter drug production facility. Additionally, Flodman and the Nebraska Ethanol Board joined a national effort to persuade the FDA to temporarily relax its regulations so ethanol producers could donate their product to create hand sanitizer.  

“At the time, I thought if we produced 10,000 gallons, that would be significant,” said Terry Howell, executive director of the Food Processing Center. “It’s been a privilege for the Food Processing Center and its faculty and staff to contribute to this important project. It’s humbling to be able to make a difference during this health care crisis.”

Flodman worked virtually around the clock to design the production model, which could produce up to 5,000 gallons per day if supplies remained available. After the first full day of production on April 6, the team sent more than 2,000 gallons of hand sanitizer with 80% alcohol to hospitals, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, first responders and other facilities in need around Nebraska. By week's end, thousands more gallons were being distributed. 

After manufacturing hand sanitizer for just over four months and donating more than 200,000 gallons, production and distribution ceased on July 31. Overall, the temporary production site distributed over 1,100 individual web orders for hand sanitizer, impacting nearly every county in Nebraska. 

“The thing that strikes me about the effort is, at a time when the ethanol industry is in dire straits financially, they have been more than generous in donating ingredients, containers and the time and effort to help keep their fellow Nebraskans safe and healthy,” said Troy Bredenkamp of Renewable Fuels Assocation, who helped with legislation and to personally deliver hand sanitizer.

More than 20 industry partners stepped up to help. Green Plains Inc. and KAAPA Ethanol donated thousands of gallons of ethanol. BASF, Cargill, Syngenta, Phillips 66 and the State of Nebraska provided other required supplies. Sapp Bros. collected ethanol from the plants, stored it at its facilities and delivered it in small batches, where Flodman, Food Processing Center employees and a team of student workers combined ingredients and dispensed it into 2.5-gallon jugs for distribution. The Nebraska Forest Service delivered raw materials and distributed hand sanitizer to communities and almost every school in the state. The College of Engineering, the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University Operations and Print and Mail Services also partnered on the project. And, when the Nebraska Department of Transportation couldn't keep up with orders, the Nebraska National Guard volunteered to help.