Despite extremely difficult times in the renewable fuels industry, a group of Iowa plants recently partnered to provide the base ingredients for hand sanitizer to the state of Iowa at no charge.

“We’re so grateful to our friends in the renewable fuels industry,” Cord Overton, communications manager for the Iowa Department of Corrections, said in March. “Thanks to our partnership, we’ve produced thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer.”

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, called the hand sanitizer project a rare bright spot in an otherwise devastating time for the biofuels industry.

He estimates since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., demand for ethanol, and subsequently production of the fuel, has been cut by at least half.

“This is as bad as I’ve seen it in 20 plus years working in this industry,” Shaw said.

Two primary ingredients for hand sanitizer are 

ethanol and glycerin. Glycerin is a byproduct of the biodiesel making process. With both in ample supply, plants across Iowa agreed to send these materials to the state for processing into sanitizer.

The Iowa Department of Corrections and Iowa Prison Industries, a program that offers job training, work and pay to inmates in state prison, were able to produce the finished product sent to a variety of state-run fac­ilities. 

“We started out sending it to prisons and the state veterans' home,” Overton explained. “After those needs were met, we rerouted the sanitizer to the state stockpile, where it was distributed to people working on the frontlines of this crisis.”

A group effort

Loads of ethanol and glycerin came from a variety of biofuel producers, including Absolute Energy in St. Ansgar, Western Iowa Energy in Wall Lake, Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs and Green Plains Inc., which has plants in Shenandoah and Superior as well as other states.

“In the midst of the economic devastation, it was pretty cool to see these plants step up and help out,” Shaw said. “Some of the plants that helped were in the process of shutting down but stayed open to help their neighbors. This is reflective of the agricultural community in general.”

“To help curb the spread of COVID-19, we are pleased to provide our local communities with a product that is essential in the production of hand sanitizer,” said Todd Becker, president and chief executive officer of Green Plains Inc., in a news release. 

“Hand sanitizer has been in limited supply, and we are eager to help fill a critical need. We intend to continue to help support states and communities in need during this difficult time." he said. "In addition, we are marketing our high value product to commercial customers for use in cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers and other consumer products.”

Hard times for biofuel

With much of the country un­der some form of a shelter-in-place order, gasoline and ethanol sales plummeted. Ethanol usage also cratered while stockpiles built up in storage.

In addition to the donations to the state, Shaw said some Iowa ethanol plants have sold their product to private companies producing sanitizer for commercial sales. 

Sales totals were not available but it's a small amount compared to what plants could produce when running at full capacity, he noted.
“These companies had bigger fish to fry than this, but they wanted to help,” Shaw said. “We were very happy to do this and be a part of it.”

Also hurting farmers

Shaw also was quick to point out the hardships don't end with ethanol and biodiesel plants.

“As horrific as it is for our industry, we understand it’s like this for many, many people,” Shaw said. “It’s bad. I hope farmers know that shutting down these plants is the last resort. I know there’s some frustration out there. I can assure folks we really like being a place to take their corn."