The UK Coronavirus crisis has seen distilleries, breweries and other plants pivot their operations to hand sanitiser production. How easy was it to do in such a short space of time?

Hand sanitiser was one of the first consumer products to disappear from supermarket and pharmacy shelves during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, for those eyeing an opportunity to begin manufacturing this in-demand product, there is much to consider, as Dr Emma Meredith, director general of the CTPA (Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association), outlines: “Whether you want to manufacturing hand gels or hand sanitisers in the UK, there are strict rules that apply to ensure safety and efficacy.”

According to the CTPA, if the sole purpose of the product is to kill germs, disinfect or sanitise hands, or prevent cross contamination, then the product is a biocide (hand sanitiser). However, if the function of the product is simply to clean and/or moisturise hands whilst providing a secondary antimicrobial effect, then the product can be classed as a cosmetic (hand gel).

It points out that the government has issued new guidance on producing hand sanitiser (www.is.gd/aloquv), while temporary changes to the use and supply of denatured alcohol and duty-free spirits have also been introduced. This is all to do with authorisations. A Covid-19 section on the CTPA’s website (www.is.gd/hejoyu) contains detailed information for both members and non-members to help them interpret the guidance. Other considerations that need to be taken into account when making hand sanitiser are also set out.

“For instance, record demand for these essential products has created shortages of ingredients and other constituent components,” says Meredith. “We have therefore created the CTPA Emergency Response Exchange (www.is.gd/cemabe) to aid the production of hand sanitiser by matching the needs of manufacturers with suppliers of ingredients and other required items.”

RELATIVE EASE

Among those responding to the hand sanitiser challenge is Louth-based Bottomley Distillers (main image). Co-founder Amy Conyard explains: “We were approached by one of our customers, who has stores across the region, asking if we could supply enough for their staff and supply chain. As we had the appropriate licensing to procure the alcohol and make the product, it seemed an obvious decision to make, especially if we were able to help with the national shortage too.”

She says that adjusting the company’s processes was relatively easy: “We moved the distillery around to make enough space for the required PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, and purchased new pumps to ensure that our blending tanks could deal with the slightly different viscosity of the liquid. We were then ready to go.

“The biggest difference in technique is that sanitiser doesn’t require the distillation process,” explains Conyard. “Therefore, the stills are relatively redundant and it’s just a case of blending and leaving the mix to sit.” Bottomley is still producing its own gin and whiskey spirits, but only on set days and in response to stock volumes. One of its blending tanks has been retained as a spirit tank, thus removing any risk of cross contamination. Equipment processes at the distillery are managed automatically via a PLC (programmable logic controller) that contains over 18,000 lines of code.

“We’ve produced over 15,000 litres of hand sanitiser [as of June], which has gone to front line NHS services, care providers, emergency services and food supply chains,” adds Conyard. “We will to continue to produce until the demand is no longer there.”

FULLY APPROVED

Many of Britain’s breweries have also commenced the manufacture of hand sanitiser, including Brewdog. The company, based in Ellon, Scotland, says it went from knowing nothing about hand sanitiser to becoming a fully-approved NHS supplier, in just 14 days, and has since shipped more than 100,000 units, for free.

The business wants to share the most important lessons from its journey, and firstly it advises following the World Health Organization recipe. WHO has published a nine-page document on the recipe and process called ‘Guide to local production’ (www.is.gd/acotot).

Brewdog also advises reference to the new Health and Safety Executive guidelines, one of the key takeaways of which is that plants no longer have to be a registered bio-site to produce sanitiser. Hand sanitisers contain active biocides or biocide-quality substances, typically propanol, and normally a plant has to register the fact that it is using propanol under the EU's Article 55 (1) of the Biocidal Products Regulation. However, the HSE has issued a temporary exemption for the manufacture and supply of biocidal hand sanitiser products in the UK on the understanding that companies meet their responsibilities in protecting people and the environment from the potentially harmful effects of chemicals.

In addition, Brewdog says it is vital to fully understand end-user requirements, describing getting up to speed with NHS regulations as “very tough”. This task extended from what mandatories need to be on the packaging to agreeing the final gel specifications.

Then there is the 72-hour hold. As Brewdog is filling the bottles manually, they are subject to a 72-hour sterility hold before shipment to the NHS or charities. Government advice on cleaning in non-healthcare settings states that the infection risk from Covid following contamination of the environment decreases over time (www.is.gd/elofat). And although it is not yet clear at what point there is no risk, studies of other viruses in the same family suggest that, in most circumstances, the risk is likely to be reduced significantly after 72 hours. This strategy ensures the final packs are completely sterile before they go into any medical environment.

FOUR DAYS

Of course, plenty of other businesses aside from distilleries and breweries have entered the hand sanitiser market, not least consumer goods giant, Unilever. The company has adapted a deodorant manufacturing line at its Leeds factory to produce much-needed NHS supplies.

Unilever says that it is thanks to the efforts of employees and the rapid response of suppliers – with materials, packaging and labels – that it was able to scale up hand sanitiser manufacture from laboratory trials to factory production in just four days.

As well as working on product formulation, Unilever had to check that all necessary safety measures were in place, and that its equipment was sanitised. The company then sourced more than 10,000 bulk containers of raw materials and packaging, which arrived at Leeds within hours.

During trials, Unilever experts were asked to advise on all aspects of hand sanitiser manufacture, from hygiene regulations, to quality control, to transport safety. Over the past few months Unilever has scaled up production globally, with more than 30 factories now making hand sanitiser for people worldwide. The company is currently exploring how it can use existing packaging formats to make the production and filling process significantly quicker.

And yet pivoting to hand sanitiser production is not just for the multinationals, as Kevin Wheeler, managing director at Hampshire-based chemical dosing systems specialist WES, can confirm. “The idea came about because we had been experiencing challenges in sourcing a supply of sanitiser for our staff, to ensure they could continue key production work,” he says.

WES bought in the ingredients and adapted existing equipment that it normally hires to clients or uses for in-house training. The company then set about designing the process to mix the constituents and batch into small bottles.

“For mixing we use two different chemical dosing pumps, set as master and slave,” explains Wheeler. “The first, a digital diaphragm pump, is set to batch a predetermined quantity of alcohol. The second pump, a peristaltic model chosen to handle the very viscous aloe vera gel, is set to run after receiving a signal from the diaphragm pump. This set-up allows accurate but different quantities of the individual constituents to be delivered over the same batch time into the mixing container.”

He adds: “After giving the resulting mixture time to settle out the residue, we use the same peristatic pump, set in a batch mode initiated on a button press, to deliver quantities that match the size of the receiving bottles.” As well as making hand sanitiser for its staff, WES has been making donations to charities and deserving causes around the Basingstoke area.

BOX OUT: Free compressor loan
Scottish spirit bottling business Young Spirits, which has switched operations to produce hand sanitisers to fight the Covid-19 outbreak, has benefitted from a free loan offer from compressor manufacturer Vert Technologies.

John Ferguson, director and co-founder of Young Spirits, explains: “On converting our operations to hand sanitisers we needed additional air to power bottling equipment so took advantage of the Vert’s 'free compressor loan scheme'."

Vert’s offer of short-term compressors, free of charge, to manufacturing companies that need air for one or two production machines is designed to help Scottish businesses cope with any downturn. Ferguson continues: “As existing Vert customers – we already run an A150 model which gives us more than enough for normal demand – we were keen to take advantage of Vert’s generous free-loan offer. Our additional A100 compressor gives us the extra air power we needed. It was delivered the day we ordered it and was installed within two hours.”

The A100 and A150 compressors are powered by Vert’s patented Conical Rotary (CRC) technology. The A100 compressor is said to offer 100lpm flow and 10 bar pressure and the A150 provides 150lpm at 10bar.

BOX OUT: INEOS delivers on 10 day promise
Manufacturing company INEOS announced in March that it had hit its 10 day target to build a new hand sanitiser plant near Middlesbrough, UK, and has started producing 1 million hand sanitisers a month (www.is.gd/ehulon).

With a shortage of hand sanitisers across the UK and Europe, the company is focusing on meeting the needs of front-line medical and care services, as well as making ‘pocket bottle’ hand sanitisers available for people’s personal use. They are produced to World Health Organisation specifications.

Speaking at the time, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder and chairman of INEOS, said: “Now that production of the INEOS hand sanitiser has started, we are working on the fastest way to get them to where they need to be. I am confident that within a few days our sanitiser will start to be seen in hospitals, surgeries and people’s homes”.

The company has also gone on to build additional hand sanatiser plants in Germany and France.

By Steed Webzell