Putting Ethanol to good use in fighting COVID-19

The devastating impact of Coronavirus looks set to reach Brazil and other countries in the region with numbers of local cases rising. We have seen how across the world, as individuals and healthcare services seek to limit the risk of the infection spreading, essential products such as face masks and hand sanitizers have become scarce as demand has increased. Industries and companies that never manufactured medical supplies before are responding with goodwill and materials, putting their resources to the service of the global pandemic response.

The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) realized that it could make a contribution to fighting the virus by putting sugarcane ethanol to good use. Through its members UNICA is donating one million liters of alcohol 70%, that can be used for disinfection or for alcohol gel production, free of charge. This additional supply will support efforts by public health units to contain the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that hospitals can be kept clean and that medical professionals and other frontline workers can better protect themselves, as well as patients and their families.

The challenge: coordinating the initiative

Making a raw material available for another use in a very short amount of time is a challenging operation, perhaps surprisingly so. While ethanol is very versatile and can be used in many products such as bioplastics, food, beverages and most notably for pharmaceutical and medicinal products, quickly shifting the focus of UNICA members’ production as well as fulfilling very specific legal, logistical and other requirements required a coordinated approach.

Describing the effort, Evandro Gussi, president of UNICA, said, “We live in a moment that demands unity and we have created a real war room operation to overcome the challenges imposed by COVID-19 and contribute to assist several States across Brazil. To date, over 650,000 liters have been donated and distributed by UNICA members to seven states across Brazil, and our efforts continue as the country comes together in the face of this unprecedented crisis. ” 

A number of different stakeholders from public and private organizations came together in order to build an operation that could guarantee safe delivery of the final product to public health units around Brazil. First, they needed to ensure that their actions were compliant with federal and state regulations. To that end, UNICA cooperated closely with the competent authorities, in particular the National Sanitary Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) to create a temporary legal frameworkwhich would allowthe production, logistics and distribution of industrial ethanol for hygienic use in response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Working together to deliver

Besides producing alcohol 70% for donation, the mills are among the providers of essential products for the population determined by the Government – sugar, ethanol fuel and bioelectricity – and had to keep operations running during the pandemic.  

It was fundamentally important to ensure that the sugarcane mills involved were prepared to manage not only the new production, but also able to protect the safety of their employees. Working with an expert in infectious diseases, all of the mills involved were able to implement new protocols to protect their staff. The infectologist’s recommendations covered both how to avoid contamination at work alongside guidance on how to stay safe at home. New measures have addressed communal dining areas, transportation, personal protective equipment, homeworking and more.

The logistics soon followed. Ethanol alcohol, as a hand sanitizer or in 70% concentration is a sensitive product. Working closely with the competent authorities ensured UNICA members had access to the expertise needed to handle and transport these products safely. Welcome support was provided by members of the Brazilian Association for the Transport and Logistics of Hazardous Products (ABTLP) who offered to play a critical role in providing the appropriate vehicles to transport the cargo, all in partnership with the National Union of Fuel and Lubricant Distribution Companies (Sindicom), who donated the diesel that fueled these heavy-duty trucks to hospitals across Brazil. Coca-Cola FEMSA Brasil also helped with the logistics and IHARA, UNIPAC and Braskem donated various containers to transport the alcohol.

UNICA also needed internal structures to manage such multi-faceted operations. This included liaising closely with both the demand and supply sides, arranging the logistics, monitoring the results and ensuring the safety of everybody involved, strictly following the hygiene and safety measures set out by the Ministry of Health and Anvisa.

Supporting those that need it most

Last but not least, our main concern was that our support reached beyond our pre-established networks. By creating new communications channels with the relevant public authorities, we were able to direct the ethanol to the organizations and locations that were most in need. Thanks to these incredible joint efforts, 650,000 liters of ethanol – the majority produced in Sao Paolo – have been donated and distributed to seven different states across the country so far as well as to local communities and municipalities around the mills themselves.  Sugarcane ethanol is a widely used product, but often best known as an alcohol-based fuel, not as a primary material for hygienic use. Produced by the fermentation of sugarcane juice and molasses it can equally act as both a sweetener in food and beverages (as sugar) or as a substitute for petroleum in the production of bioplastics. Pioneering research is currently being led from Brazil to develop renewable fuels from sugarcane that could entirely replace traditional gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Thanks to the versatility of sugarcane ethanol and hard work of everyone involved, UNICA hopes that initiatives like these can help slow down the spread of the virus and protect the lives of frontline workers. As sugarcane manufacturers, UNICA’s members are proud of the contribution they can make and are honored to have been able to play their part in supporting the global response to the Coronavirus pandemic.