Chemical industry steps up effort to battle coronavirus with massive sanitizer production, donations

Joseph Chang


NEW YORK (ICIS)–The global chemical industry is stepping up to battle the coronavirus outbreak with a massive pivot towards the production of key raw materials for hand sanitizers as well as the finished product itself.

Much of the hand sanitizers will also be distributed free to hospitals and healthcare institutions to address shortages.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to crank out polymers such as polypropylene (PP) for key personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, surgical gowns and antibacterial wipes; polyethylene (PE) for food and equipment packaging; chlorine bleach for disinfectants and surfactants for soaps and other cleaning products; and polycarbonate (PC) and polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) for clear protective screens.

This underscores the critical nature of the chemical industry in human health and safety.

On 19 March, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified the chemical industry and its workers as Essential Critical Infrastructure, an industry sector critical to public health and safety, economic and national security, noted the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

The DHS noted to the chemical industry that there is “a special responsibility to maintain your work schedule”, while following CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) workforce and customer protection guidance.

“The industry has, and will, play a significant role in this crisis, its prevention and also the recovery. There are many examples where our industry, like humankind, has come together and stepped up and pivoted to support our fight against Covid-19,” said Dean Curtis, president and CEO of ICIS, on a 24 March ICIS Webinar on the coronavirus impact on chemical markets.

Dean Curtis, president and CEO, ICIS

Dow has joined efforts in Germany to overcome the shortage of hand sanitizers.

As of 20 March, Dow began producing hand sanitizer at its site in Stade near Hamburg, and first deliveries began on Tuesday, it confirmed.

Production will be ramped up to 300 tonnes/month of hand sanitizer, equivalent to 600,000 standard bottles (500ml each).

The disinfectant is filled into intermediate bulk containers (IBC) and will then be made available to government authorities for distribution to pharmacies and hospitals free of charge.

The project at Stade was made possible through cooperation with Olin, which produces the required glycerine there, Dow said.

Dow and Olin were responding to calls for help by Germany’s federal health ministry.

Dow also plans to re-purpose an existing facility to produce hand sanitizer in the US, it added.

INEOS aims to complete two hand sanitizer plants in the UK and Germany in 10 days to produce 1m bottles per month each to address a critical shortage across Europe, it said on Tuesday.

A spokesperson told ICIS that the company had been preparing the move for some time, making it confident it could achieve the 10-day timeframe.

INEOS plans to supply the hand sanitizers to hospitals, schools, places of work, pharmacies and supermarkets. Product would be free for hospitals.

In the UK, the spokesperson said Grangemouth would increase its ethanol capacity for the new product lines.

INEOS produces the two raw materials for hand sanitizers – isopropanol (IPA) and ethanol – in Grangemouth and Germany’s Moers and Herne sites.

The company has IPA production capacities of 155,000 tonnes/year at Moers and of 85,000 tonnes/year in Herne.

For ethanol, INEOS’ production capacities are located in Grangemouth with two lines producing 330,000 tonnes/year.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that hand to mouth infection is a significant cause of coronavirus contagion and INEOS is Europe’s largest manufacturer of the core ingredient of hand sanitizer,” said INEOS chairman Jim Ratcliffe.

Supply of both ethanol and IPA has been extremely tight in Europe in past weeks as demand for hand sanitizers spiked globally.

Arkema has repurposed a production line at a site in France in order to manufacture, starting on 20 March, 20 tonnes/week of alcohol-based solutions.

The solutions will be distributed free of charge to hospitals in France, which urgently need disinfectants.

They will be supplied to French health authorities, and will be earmarked for the mass restocking of public hospitals.

The company has quickly obtained the necessary administrative authorisations for the move, it added.

Huntsman will produce 50 tonnes of hand sanitizer at its Monthey, Switzerland facilities to be donated to hospitals and pharmacies as the country tries to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The site will produce a hydro alcoholic solution to then manufacture hand sanitizers.

The move comes after “an urgent appeal” from the Swiss government as hospitals in the country face shortages of hand sanitizers.

“The first shipment of five tons is expected to be delivered immediately. More production is planned to ensure a stable supply of between three tons and five tons per week as required to help safeguard medical staff, patients, and the public,” said Huntsman.

Huntsman said it stood ready to also contribute to fight the pandemic in the US.

“As this virus makes its way to every continent, we will continue to leverage our experience and knowledge in other regions, including the US,” said CEO Peter Huntsman.

BASF is set to begin production of hand sanitizers at its Ludwigshafen petrochemicals hub in Germany and will distribute them for free to nearby hospitals in the Rhine-Neckar region to help alleviate supply bottlenecks.

The company has obtained quick regulatory approvals to begin the production, and several tonnes of isopropanol have already been re-allocated to enable hand sanitizer production at the site, it said on Tuesday.

So far, BASF has been producing certain raw materials that can be used to make disinfectant products, but not hand sanitizers.

“We know from hospitals in the region that supplies of appropriate disinfectants are very tight,” said Uwe Liebelt, head of the Ludwigshafen site.

BASF added that its production capabilities will be “limited”, and the company will therefore be able to distribute free products only to hospitals in the region.

German chemical producers group VCI has launched a “disinfectant products initiative” that aims at ensuring supplies of IPA, ethanol, and other chemicals, as well as the disinfectants made from those raw materials.

Because of complex legal regulations, Germany currently has only a few specialty firms that are allowed to produce and market disinfectant products, a VCI official said.

Brazilian ethanol producers plan to donate alcohol gel and 70% alcohol to public health institutions to help fight the spread of coronavirus as the industry seeks approval to produce additional ethanol-based products, ethanol industry association Unica announced.

Unica is working in coordination with the Ministries of Agriculture, Mining & Energy, Health, the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) and state health departments to obtain approval for the project.

The sugar cane mills that produce sugar alcohol for fuel and cosmetics do not have authorisation to manufacture alcohol used for disinfection purposes. Their goal is to obtain that authorisation after receiving increased interest from several countries and to provide additional domestic supplies.

German ethanol producer CropEnergies will partially switch production from fuel alcohol to neutral alcohol to help meet the growing demand for ethanol as a raw material for disinfectants, it said on 18 March.

CropEnergies has also appealed to the German finance ministry to remove alcohol tax hurdles for the use of undenatured fuel ethanol as a disinfectant.

Poland’s PKN Orlen oil and petrochemicals group has moved into the production of hand sanitizer to meet growing demand.

“Our laboratories have been working on this for several days. We are using the company’s technical capacities to join activities in relation to providing protection against the coronavirus. We want to respond to the expectations of Poles as soon as possible and increase their security,” PKN Orlen CEO Daniel Obajtek said in early March.

MOL has converted a windshield washer production line at its facilities in Almasfuzito, Hungary, into production of 50,000 litres/day of hand sanitizer, it said on Wednesday.

“The unit is operating 24/7, in three shifts, producing a daily volume of around 50,000 litres, allowing MOL to contribute to the global fight against Covid-19,” the company said.

The hand sanitizers have not yet been commercialised at MOL’s gas station in its domestic market, but the first volumes have already been delivered to hospital or other public utilities.

“[Deliveries have been made] as directed by the Operative Group set up by the Hungarian government. Production and shipping will be continuous,” said the company.

MOL’s subsidiaries in Croatia and Slovakia, INA and Vurup, have also started producing hand sanitizer.

“Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary solutions. We have made the switch at the plant, obtained the necessary approvals and optimised production processes in only two weeks, a record time,” said MOL’s CEO Zsolt Hernadi.

Oleochemicals company Oleon is producing 20,000 litres of hand sanitizers at its Olegem, Belgium facility to give for free to hospitals and healthcare institutions.

“After some adjustments in our production processes, we are able to produce hand sanitizer based on our own raw materials. Oleon employees are proud to be doing good in difficult times like this,” general sales manager Finbar Lynch said on LinkedIn.

DSM has produced its first hand sanitizers and will be sending 260,000 bottles “to support our front-line heroes in hospitals,”  co-CEO Dimitri-de Vreeze said on LinkedIn.

Shell has decided to make 2.5m litres of isopropyl alcohol (isopropanol) free of charge for disinfectants production, Yuriy Yanson, commercial product manager, solvents, EMEA, said on LinkedIn.

Front page image source: Shutterstock

Additional reporting by Stefan Baumgarten, Jonathan Lopez, Renato Frimm, Anne-Sophie Briant-Vaghela, Will Conroy, Clare Pennington and Barbara Ortner

Sign up here for industry updates on “Making sense of market events: Coronavirus and oil price slumps”. Join the other webinars here

Please visit the ICIS coronavirus topic page for analysis of the impact on chemical markets and links to latest news

Focus article by Joseph Chang


Global News + ICIS Chemical Business (ICB)

See the full picture, with unlimited access to ICIS chemicals news across all markets and regions, plus ICB, the industry-leading magazine for the chemicals industry.

Contact us

Now, more than ever, dynamic insights are key to navigating complex, volatile commodity markets. Access to expert insights on the latest industry developments and tracking market changes are vital in making sustainable business decisions.

Want to learn about how we can work together to bring you actionable insight and support your business decisions?

Need Help?

Need Help?