Research sees eco-friendly alcohol hand sanitizer made from waste

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in global demand for hand sanitizers. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is mostly produced from corn and sugarcane, by an expensive and polluting process. 
  • Thousands of tons of ethanol are imported by Israel annually (no local production) as raw material required for hand sanitizer production. The increasing global demand raises concerns regarding this disinfectant’s availability. 
  • In a world first — a ground-breaking development enables a local Israeli, low-cost, decentralized, non-polluting production of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer from waste, such as municipal and agricultural trim, straw and residual paper fibers. 
  • Following the successful research, a patent to this effect was registered by Tel Aviv University (TAU) in the USA.

TEL AVIV July 26, 2020 — The global Coronavirus crisis has led to a worldwide increase in demands for alcohol (ethanol) based disinfectants, such as alcogel and Septol. Ethanol is mostly produced from plants that are used as food sources, such as corn, sugarcane and other carbohydrate-rich crops, and is used mainly as a biological fuel, which has reduced carbon emissions, as compared to oil. However, ethanol production is environmentally polluting, since it requires the allocation of large areas for corn cultivation, as well as the use of pest control agents and large amounts of water. Israel has no local ethanol production, and is completely dependent on the annual import of tens of thousands tons of ethanol. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, concerns emerged of shortages of hand sanitizer in Israel as a result of quarantine conditions in other states, global demand and import limitations.

A TAU breakthrough development enables, for the first time, a local production of ethanol (and, thus, hand sanitizer) based on plant and paper waste, using a novel lignin (substance found in plants) degradation process. This revolutionary process could significantly cut back on production costs and lead to a decrease in the use of edible plant sources, help protect the environment, reduce the use of various pollutants (e.g., pest control agents) and greenhouse gases emissions, due to environmental-friendly waste processing.

This novel method was developed as part of a joint research of Prof. Hadas Mamane from the TAU School of Mechanical Engineering, Prof. Yoram Gerchman from the Oranim Academic College – Haifa University, and TAU PhD students Roi Perez, Yan Rosen and Barak Halpern. The research showed a success in converting plant and paper waste into ethanol, the main raw material required for hand sanitizer production. Following the successful experiments, a USA patent, based on the process of ethanol production from paper and cardboard recycling waste, was recently registered by Tel Aviv University.

Prof. Hadas Mamane, Head of the Environmental Engineering Program for postgraduate studies in the Faculty of Engineering in Tel Aviv University, explains that “our successful ethanol production from various waste types, including municipal and agricultural trim, straw, paper waste, paper sludge, etc., using a novel, simple and cheap process, that hardly causes any environmental damage, does not require the use of any hazardous materials, and can be implemented in a decentralized manner, on a small scale, as well as part of large-scale fermentation and distillation processes, is a genuine breakthrough”.

According to Prof. Mamane, the University has recently started an applicative pilot of ethanol production for use in disinfectants, using Israel’s waste, in an attempt to take on the challenge of increasing the efficacy of alcohol production from various types of waste. 

Prof. Mamane also mentions that “this research has so much potential because approximately 620,000 tons of plant and similar waste, and 35,000 tons of paper waste, that have no use and whose management requires resources, are produced annually in Israel alone. Salvaging this waste by using it to produce ethanol will cut waste management expenses, increase the efficiency and decentralize ethanol production, reduce resource exploitation of edible plants, and could reduce fuel usage and air pollution, caused by burning of agricultural production that is frequent around the globe.”

About Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University is Israel’s largest and most comprehensive institution of higher learning. The university is home to more than 30,000 students, 400 labs, 9 faculties, 35 schools, 98 departments and has 17 affiliated hospitals in its network. TAU’s rise as a world-renowned university in a mere 60 years demonstrates its power of vision and dedication.

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