ExxonMobil. Isopropyl Alcohol Drums.Pic2..4.1.2020.jpg

ExxonMobil drums are filled with isopropyl alcohol. The company has shifted operations at two Baton Rouge-area chemical plants to produce medical-grade hand sanitizer. An initial batch of 160,000 gallons of sanitizer, enough to fill nearly 5 million bottles, will be donated to health care providers and first responders.

ExxonMobil has shifted some operations at two Baton Rouge-area chemical plants to produce medical-grade hand sanitizer that will be used as a weapon against the spread of coronavirus.

A batch of 160,000 gallons of sanitizer — enough to fill nearly 5 million bottles — will be donated to health care providers and first responders in Louisiana, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. More donation locations are planned.

J. Dow, who heads up the polymers process department at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge chemical plant, said the effort sprung out of a chain of text messages between a small group of employees who wanted to help with the coronavirus relief effort. The most obvious need they could address was making sanitizer, he said.

The Baton Rouge plant was well positioned to make sanitizer. One of the key indgredients is isopropyl alcohol and the facility boasts the largest isopropyl alcohol manufacturing unit in the world.

The process of getting ready to make sanitizer took a few weeks, something that Dow said would normally be accomplished over months. “We put on a full court press and pulled in a lot of resources,” he said. But the company didn’t cut corners. Exxon staffers reviewed U.S. Food and Drug Administration documents, which set the guidelines for non-traditional manufacturers to make sanitizer.

The isopropyl alcohol is blended with other ingredients to make the sanitizer. Once the chemical plant workers started getting ready to start production, they realized there was another obstacle. The sanitizer was going to be produced in 300-gallon totes, which wouldn’t be useful for distribution. That’s when the team at the Port Allen Lubricants plant got involved.

“Packaging is our specialty,” said Ryan Beissinger, who is in charge of plant safety and health at the Port Allen facility. While the team at the plant was familiar with blending and packaging oil and aviation lubricants, the hand sanitizer was a challenge because it is flammable. “We had to use a little bit of ingenuity and creativity,” he said. The sanitizer is being packaged outdoors. A semi-automated bottling line was developed, which can fill six quart-sized bottles at a time. 

"It's an extreme luxury to be able to call up a bottling plant when you have an issue," Dow said.

ExxonMobil is now bottling 15,000 gallons of sanitizer a week, in 5-gallon pails and quart bottles. Production will soon be ramped up to 20,000 gallons.

Lard Oil, a local Mobil wholesaler, will distribute the sanitizer in Louisiana and other states. The first batches went out Friday.

Producing sanitizer isn’t the only way ExxonMobil is helping make people safe during the coronavirus pandemic. The company also increased its capability to manufacture specialized polypropylene, used in medical masks and gowns. That will be enough to produce up to 200 million medical masks or 20 million gowns.

“This has been one of the more exciting things I’ve been involved in,” said Dow, who has been with ExxonMobil for nearly 15 years. “It’s a good use of our resources and really fulfilling.”

Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.