stripping the aloe plant and soaking it in solution to add to hand sanitizer solution
CTAHR students distilling alcohol into hand sanitizer.

Editor’s note: April 29, 2020—The students have created a GoFundMe page, in hopes of expanding operations and delivering their virus-killing product to more communities in need. All funds raised will go toward sugar sources and bottles for distribution.

Desperate times call for imaginative measures. Instead of making rum and ginger beer, students in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering (MBBE) are using the knowledge they gained to distill hand sanitizer to help combat COVID-19.

The project began in early March, when classmates in fermentation biochemistry were originally planning to make rum for the annual CTAHR Awards Banquet by fermenting sugar and water to be distilled into alcohol. However, public shortages of hand sanitizer caused by COVID-19 led them to change direction and turn the product into hand sanitizer.

distilling mixture into glass jugs
Distilling process

The class only had to alter a few steps in the process, including distilling the spirit to a greater percentage of ethanol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for hand sanitizers to be at least 60 percent alcohol to kill the coronavirus, and the students’ product will meet that mark.

Fermentation biochemistry course consultant and MBBE PhD candidate Nick Sinclair is excited about the project. “We are hoping that all of Hawaiʻi 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.”

After distillation, the pulp of fresh, locally grown aloe provided by specialist Ken Leonhardt from the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences 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,” said Sinclair.

Hands mixing in aloe strands