WEOS Finger Lakes Public Radio

Cornell AgriTech helps distilleries pivot to producing hand sanitizer

Apr 10, 2020

In mid-March, all kinds of products started disappearing from store shelves in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic. One of the items that was in immediate short supply was hand sanitizer. That’s when upstate distillers realized they could put their expertise to use in creating the product, which is a vital need for healthcare professionals. When they had questions about reconfiguring their businesses to meet the need, they turned to Cornell AgriTech in Geneva.

Chris Gerling, senior extension associate, checks the still located at Cornell AgriTech’s food science pilot plant in Geneva.Credit Allison Usavage / Cornell UniversityEdit | Remove

“That's what we do, at Extension, right, is we try to be a hub," says Chris Gerling, senior extension associate in food science at Cornell AgriTech. "Because I want to make clear that this is not something that is 100 percent being led by us. We are receiving information from distilleries. There are pioneers in this who took a lot of risks on their own. And we've been learning from them and spreading their experience along as well.”

Gerling says that making hand sanitizer isn’t so different than making vodka, though the alcohol content is considerably higher. What the distillers are particularly adept at is working with a process that can be quite dangerous.

“The other side of it is, while it's not necessarily complicated, it is fraught. It is dangerous. We're talking about 80 percent alcohol right now that they're blending in somewhere 75 to 80 percent. At that level of alcohol, the flash point for it is basically at or even slightly below room temperature. So, the potential for fire or explosion with the vapors from that kind of a product, there's a high risk. So, facilities need to be used to dealing with this type of product and have adequate ventilation systems and all that.”

While Gerling expects distillers to eventually return to their core business, he does see an opportunity for New York biofuel suppliers. They produce ethanol as a fuel additive less expensively and as people drive less, those suppliers will be looking for new markets for their products.