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Carderock Scientists Tackle Hand Sanitizer Shortage

By Benjamin McKnight III, NSWCCD Public Affairs | June 24, 2020

One of the earliest words of guidance to come from the entities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was how important it is for people to keep their hands clean.

As the situation progressed from slightly concerning to severely important, retailers across the nation were not prepared for the mass purchasing of sanitation products. Hand sanitizer was one of the most popular purchases and by the middle of March, many stores and online shops were completely out of stock. Since then, those who have been able to refill their supply have put limits on how many bottles can be purchased at one time, while many listings on websites such as Amazon are still on backorder.

Engineers and scientists at Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division who are dealing with the impact of sanitizer shortages have been enlisted to help handle demand. With the idea originally stemming from the efforts of Deniz Ferrin and Cody Matheson of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (IMF), Jay Ong of Carderock’s Corrosion and Coatings Engineering Branch is leading an effort to produce hand sanitizer for the command’s use. The group is following the WHO’s procedures for local production, a guideline that has been out since April 2010. The effort started small with the production of 10, 1-liter bottles and has since grown. After becoming an officially registered Food and Drug Administration (FDA) producer of Ethanol-based hand sanitizer, Carderock can now make the hand sanitizer for the command in 50-mililiter and 1-gallon packaging. Since production began, Ong said they have made over 1000 units.

“Although handwashing is definitely the preferred method, one of the things that we also recognize is that handwashing is not always available or practical,” Ong said.

During the course of the pandemic response, a number of groups at Carderock are finding creative ways to fight the shortage of essential equipment. Some of the materials Ong and his counterparts are using are in a higher demand now, but still easier to come by than sanitizer that has already been made and packaged.

“That was actually one of the first rabbit holes we went down,” Ong said about the challenge of purchasing sanitizer in bulk. Ong said that industry is catching up, but you have to be cautious as some hand sanitizers aren’t registered with the FDA, are not of the right alcohol content to be effective against COVID-19 or cannot be bought in bulk reliably. 

The four ingredients in the solution are ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, glycerol and distilled water, all of which are United States Pharmacopeia (USP)-grade materials to ensure a high quality product is made. Every batch of sanitizer goes through a series of quality control checks right after it is produced and before it is packaged. WHO standards require these sanitizers to have an 80% by volume concentration of ethanol with an acceptable deviation of 5% higher or lower. All of the Carderock-produced batches produced thus far have fallen between 80-84% according to Ong.

Planning the execution of this task began almost immediately after the initial stay-at-home orders were given in mid-March. By April 14, the first batch of sanitizer was complete. The time in between was spent validating the process, procuring the materials and creating a standard operating procedure that would identify the most effective means of completing the process. One of the biggest challenges faced in this task was securing adequate packaging to distribute sanitizer.

“A tremendous amount of time was spent trying to identify a container that could be placed in the travel kit, meet TSA restrictions, and effectively dispense the hand sanitizer,” Ong said. “Many of the small fine-mist bottles or pumps were just not available for the same reasons that Germ-X and Purell were not available.”

Now on their third iteration of packaging, Ong said the group has finally hit the mark. Version one’s bottles had a screw top he compared to that on a Sriracha sauce bottle and the second version used a disc cap one would normally find on a lotion bottle.

“Version three is really where we’re hitting our stride,” he said. “We have these airless sprayers that are working exceedingly well and are refillable which is nice for continuous use. It’s a nice, elegant long bottle that you can put in your pocket while doing daily operations.”

Help with the production effort has come from all parts of the command, as Ong said individuals regularly volunteer to help with labeling and packaging the sanitizer. The hand sanitizer is primarily being used in the travel kits, but it can always be requested through the chain of command. On top of this effort, Code 10 has been working to procure more wall-mounted dispensers, refills and additional sources of supply as Carderock is nearing the Phase I of returning to worksites.

With the spread of COVID-19 has come a new normal for people across the globe. At Carderock, the “norm” was always to find an innovative solution to a problem, a fact that remains true as this pandemic continues.