USDA seeks sanitizer from Nebraska-based operation

By Nebraska Ethanol Board | May 22, 2020

A vision between two ethanol advocates to use excess ethanol to make hand sanitizer for Nebraskans has now became a nationwide effort. Nearly 7,000 gallons of Nebraska-made sanitizer has been donated and shipped to Maryland and dispersed throughout the country to USDA Food Safety Inspection Service employees responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, and egg products. There are 6,500 FSIS field offices across the nation.

The USDA’s initial request included 6,500 gallons of hand sanitizer but deliveries have continued as the need remains—now totaling 6,700 gallons. An additional 6,500 gallons is planned to also be donated. Hunter Flodman, PhD., assistant professor of practice in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), says this will be no problem. Thanks, largely, to a very generous donation of food grade (FCC) alcohol from Green Plains Inc. Green Plains has been a huge champion, donating 81,000 gallons of FCC grade alcohol since the temporary hand sanitizer production facility began in early April. When the request came in from the USDA, they did not hesitate.

“Green Plains and our employees remain committed to providing high quality, FDA approved, FCC grade alcohol for the use in production of hand sanitizer,” said Todd Becker, president and CEO of Green Plains. “We are happy to be able to fill a need for the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service employees, as they work hard to keep America’s food supply chain safe.”

Green Plains, which operates 13 biorefineries across the United States, has donated more than 6,800 gallons of FCC grade alcohol for the USDA project. The donated product comes from Green Plains Inc.’s York, Nebraska, facility. FCC Grade alcohol is higher in purity and quality than traditional fuel grade ethanol. Green Plains does not sell any fuel grade alcohol for use in disinfectants or sanitizers.

“I cannot say enough about the incredible generosity of our partners in the ethanol industry during an economically challenging time,” Flodman said. “In this case, Green Plains is helping ensure that consumers get a safe product, whether they buy meat at a supermarket or a meat locker in their community.”

Other organizations, including BASF, Cargill, Johnson Matthey, Lee Containers, Phillips 66 Co., the State of Nebraska, and Syngenta have also contributed. 

“When production started initially, we thought we’d donate about 4,000 gallons for essential businesses around Nebraska. That ended up happening in just the first two days,” Flodman said. “The whole operation came together very quickly so we didn’t have a plan for how much and how long. However, the need hasn’t been met. There is still a shortage of hand sanitizer. More than 25 companies have stepped up to donate the raw materials, and the University [of Nebraska-Lincoln] continues to give us the resources we need so we can continue to donate hand sanitizer to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

The hand sanitizer production facility has a home in the parking lot of Nebraska Innovation Campus’ (NIC) Food Processing Center (FPC). Volunteers have mixed more than 60,000 gallons of hand sanitizer—all from donated raw materials—since the operation began April 5.

Flodman, who is also the technical advisor for the Nebraska Ethanol Board, and Jan tenBensel, NEB chairman, have spearheaded the project. They started brainstorming ideas on April 1, and by April 6 the team was in full production mode. Currently, the team consists of just a handful of people who have undergone safety training. They have worked tirelessly for the past several weeks to recruit supplies and fulfill requests. These volunteers include Flodman; tenBensel; Terry Howell Jr., FPC executive director; Russell Parde, FPC pilot plant manager; and additional FPC and UNL Engineering staff, including Heather Newell; Julie Reiling: Leonard Akert; Pete Hilsabeck; Sarah Herzinger; and Tom Dobesh. UNL Environmental Health and Safety has contributed time and resources to the project including full time volunteer TJ Bond. The Nebraska Forest Service, through Lewis Sieber, has handled raw material transport and logistics.  

“These USDA inspectors provide critical support to our food supply chain and also the livestock industry here in our state,” Howell said. “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.” 

The partnership with the FPC is key because it is U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA)-approved facility for the production of food. The FPC had to register with the FDA as an over-the-counter drug manufacturer for the process of producing hand sanitizer. Without them, the project couldn’t have even begun. Now, with the FDA tightening restrictions on who can and cannot provide ethanol for hand sanitizer, the partnership with Green Plains is integral.

“At first the FDA relaxed restrictions which allowed many ethanol plants to step up in this time of need. Now, we fear these tightened restrictions on fuel-grade ethanol will worsen sanitizer shortages,” tenBensel said. “We are very encouraged that Green Plains continues to support these efforts and will continue to forge ahead, but we feel this is quite a blow to the plants who invested in equipment for hand-sanitizer production to offset this slump in fuel demand. Safety is, of course, our No. 1 priority and the very reason we began this project, so we understand the FDA’s caution.” 

So far, the hand sanitizer made at NIC has been delivered to first responders, hospitals, nursing homes, and other essential businesses and organizations throughout Nebraska and now to Maryland. Fulfilling the USDA’s order requires multiple deliveries because of transportation restrictions. Once dropped off, the USDA manages distribution to its employees.

Production will continue as long as resources allow, tenBensel said. So far, every single gallon of product has been provided to these organizations at no cost. For more information about the project, visit handsanitizer.unl.edu.