On March 23, the chemical engineers at Adaptive Energy LLC were mixing hand sanitizer from a widely used World Health Organization recipe.
By March 27, they were assembling face shields and plastic intubation boxes that health care workers across the country need to treat COVID-19 patients.
Most weeks, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company produces propane-powered fuel cells for the railroad infrastructure military-grade drones.
But with business slowed by the coronavirus outbreak, the company's owner turned his employees' attention to making 11,000 8-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer from the WHO's isopropyl alcohol recipe.
"Given that we have multiple chemical engineering Ph.D.s on staff, this isn't technically very challenging for us, and we thought it would be good for the community," said Ranvir Gujral, who owns the fuel cell company through his private equity firm Sleeping Bear Capital.
Gujral, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and metro Detroit native, set up an e-commerce store at arborapothecary.com for the hand sanitizer to be sold to Ann Arbor residents through curbside pickup at the factory off South State Street.
But seemingly everyone from craft alcohol distilleries to the tour guides at Detroit Bus Co. with the chemistry know-how was making hand sanitizer.
And the supply of isopropyl alcohol was starting to run short, calling into question how sustainable the hand sanitizer business is for even sophisticated producers.
"All of the supplies are very challenging right now," said Rich Martin, vice president of operations of Adaptive Energy. "Even if we had orders beyond the 11,000 bottles, it might be a challenge. There's a lot of people trying to do this.
"In normal times, you wouldn't have any trouble procuring isopropyl alcohol," Martin added. "But for us, after this, I don't think we could get it at a cost that was even close to reasonable."