Lincoln Electric System, working with university, finds hand sanitizer source

Lincoln Electric System (LES) in Nebraska is the latest public power utility to find a new way to source critical materials needed to combat the spread of COVID-19.

In February, Lincoln Electric System could see that its supplies of hand sanitizer were running low. Part of the utility’s agreement with its suppliers is for them to have at least a three-month supply of sanitizer on hand as a hedge against the kind of shortfall LES was now facing. But high demand had already eaten away at that buffer. The coronavirus crisis had made the data that the suppliers relied on obsolete.

Lincoln Electric System began checking around with its numerous suppliers, but they were all coming up dry. “Unfortunately, the supply was largely exhausted even for suppliers with national purchasing power,” Chad Gebers, a supervisor of buildings and grounds at LES, said.  

Gebers reached out to dozens of organizations, searching for sanitizer. Even though several businesses had stopped making their usual products and converted to making sanitizer, it wasn’t the familiar, gel type of sanitizer. It was a more basic product with few ingredients that can be produced quickly in bulk quantities.

Several companies that were now making sanitizer had a set quantity available each day and, with demand high, they would sell out every day on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, in many cases, it would take anywhere from two to four weeks before the companies would be able to deliver the sanitizer.

One of those businesses was Froggy’s Fog, which usually makes fluids used to make fog for shows and events. Froggy’s Fog had converted to making sanitizer around the clock, producing 600 gallons a day and selling much of it in bulk.

Geber placed an order for 50 gallons of sanitizer, knowing it would take weeks to arrive. Meanwhile, the day after he made the order, a colleague sent him an April 7 article from the Lincoln Journal Star about a collaboration between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

Ethanol producers had a problem. Stay-at-home mandates had cratered the oil market and, with it, demand for gasoline and for the fuel grade ethanol that is mixed in with gas. Some of Nebraska’s 25 ethanol plants have been idled because of storage problems and the economics of the energy market. Several of those producers are donating their products nationally to hand sanitizer manufacturing efforts. There was a problem, however, federal regulations do not allow fuel grade ethanol to be used in hand sanitizer.

In mid-March, Hunter Flodman, an assistant professor of practice in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the university, began working with the ethanol board. Together, they joined a national effort to persuade the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to relax its regulations.

Their efforts were successful. Under temporarily relaxed standards, the FDA will not prosecute a plant for providing ethanol as long as it is 94.9% alcohol. In addition, the recently enacted federal stimulus package gave temporary relief from an alcohol excise tax that could have added more than $100,000 in tax costs to the project.

The project required Food Processing Center on the Nebraska Innovation Campus, part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to register with the FDA as an over-the-counter drug production facility, and staff and volunteers at the center had to take safety training. But on April 6, the Food Processing Center completed its first full day of producing hand sanitizer. The Food Processing Center is now able to produce as much as 5,000 gallons of sanitizer per day.

The day after reading the article, Gebers called the Nebraska Innovation Campus at 8 a.m. and placed an order for 50 gallons of sanitizer. He was expecting to hear that it would arrive in weeks but, instead, “the guy said, ‘We’ll get it out there today,’” Gebers said. The shipment arrived before 1 p.m. on the same day.

LES does not usually use hand sanitizer in 50-gallon vats “But we knew we were going that route, so we had already purchased spray bottles,” Gebers said.

The sudden availability of hand sanitizer was not the only surprise that day. “I asked the university to invoice me and was told there would be no charge,” Gebers said. He was told that the materials used make the sanitizer were donated and that the university was a non-profit, so there was no cost for the utility.

Hand sanitizer supplies are now beginning to appear through the normal channels, Gebers said. “Supply is finally catching up.” The lesson here, he said, is that you need to be one step ahead of the curve. He already ordered surgical face masks several weeks ago in anticipation of when employees return to work.

Looking further out, the bigger question now, Gebers said, is what the new normal will be. “We really have to think this through and focus on what it really means to be part of a global economy.”