School Spirit(s)

Fermentation Biochemistry students distill alcohol into hand sanitizer...home brewers can help!

  • 26 March 2020
  • Author: Frederika Bain
  • Number of views: 3102
School Spirit(s)

Desperate times call for imaginative measures. Instead of making rum and ginger beer, students in CTAHR’s Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering (MBBE) department are using the knowledge theyʻve gained to distill hand sanitizer.

Fermentation Biochemistry course consultant and MBBE PhD candidate Nick Sinclair is excited about the project to help combat COVID-19 by supplying sorely needed hand sanitizers to the community. “We are hoping that all of Hawai‘i will be able to benefit from us alleviating at least our section of the populace from having to buy hand sanitizer,” he said. “This is also a learning experience for everyone involved, so this experience enriches our education as well.”

The project began weeks ago, when classmates in Fermentation Biochemistry were originally planning to make rum for the CTAHR Banquet by fermenting sugar and water to be distilled into alcohol. But public shortages of hand sanitizer caused by COVID-19 led to a decision to change direction and turn the product into hand sanitizer. The class only had to alter a few steps in the process, including distilling the spirit to a greater percentage of ethanol. CDC guidelines call for hand sanitizers to be at least 60% alcohol to kill the coronavirus, and the class’s product will meet that mark.

Kento Senga, a Food Science and Human Nutrition student who took the class because of his interest in fermentation and the process of making alcoholic beverages, says when the class shifted to hand sanitizer, the process was not at all different. “We are still making an alcoholic product with the same procedures and fermentation methods. Plus this is a good opportunity for us to help some people in a more meaningful way,” he says.

After distillation, the pulp of fresh, locally grown aloe provided by Dr. Ken Leonhardt (TPSS) was extracted and blended smooth. This creates a gel-like consistency and keeps the spirit from drying out hands excessively. Next, it will be mixed with the distilled alcohol and the product will be tested.

“Eventually, we hope to be able to distribute it at the very least to people around us, but the class is also working on other channels of distribution,” says Nick.

Dr. Bingham adds, “The course unexpectedly took a turn, which illustrates to students clearly that in business models, there has to be portfolio diversity/flexibility, and ultimately we need to respond to the needs of the community in such a situation as COVID-19. This is a lesson I hope they take beyond their years at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.”

Home brewers: If you are able to brew high-alcohol-content spirit at home and want to donate it to be made into hand sanitizer, please contact J.P. Bingham at jbingham@hawaii.edu.