SAM Engineer Helps Fight COVID-19 With Home-Grown Tech

April 6, 2020

Like many companies during the current COVID outbreak, SAM has faced challenges obtaining high-demand supplies such as sanitizers. One SAM employee found a very creative way to help fill that need: home distilling. SAM’s Chief Technology Officer, Adam Long, PE, PLS, has always had an interest in science and conducting experiments to explore the concepts. One of his home projects was to build and operate a reflux still to produce ethanol, otherwise known as alcohol, which he uses for fuel and other household applications. When he noticed that many commercial distilleries were using their products to produce sanitizers for the COVID outbreak, he realized he could do the same for SAM.

After discussing the possibility with SAM field operation managers, they agreed this would be a very useful addition to their supplies. Long had already obtained the required Federal Alcohol Fuel Plant permit enabling him to legally produce ethanol, strictly for non-human consumption, so all he needed to do was ramp-up production. The basic process involves combining sugar, water, and yeast into a mixture, allowing it to ferment for two-weeks, then applying heat in a distillation process until the alcohol vaporizes through the top end of the reflux still and condenses after cooling into liquid form. Relying on his engineering and technology background, Long built an apparatus to perform the distillation step, essentially a high-tech still, then began production. He estimates that for every 25 liters of raw mixture, he can produce 3 liters of ethanol at about 95% strength, or 190 proof.

For the final steps, the alcohol is denatured for distribution, then diluted with water to achieve a 70% strength recommended for sanitization. Rather than combining it with gel solely for hand application, the ethanol is put in misting bottles so it can be sprayed on multiple surfaces, including hands. These are distributed to field crews and other staff for use. According to Long, the entire process is very predictable and repeatable, and can be used to produce ethanol as long as there is a need.

In times of great need, every contribution helps and creative ideas are always welcome. As for what inspired him to develop this solution, Long noted “I’ve always been interested in science-based problem solving and really enjoy the process of tinkering to learn more. Sometimes these ideas lead to practical benefits beyond the expected. I never imagined using a homemade still to help fight a global pandemic, but thanks to science, here we are.”

Photo Caption: Adam Long, shown left, labels misting bottles full of home distilled ethanol for use as sanitizer by SAM field staff during the COVID outbreak.