Research labs are empty, face-to-face classes are canceled, and a virus-induced pandemic is underway. What are a couple of university chemists to do?
Produce and distribute thousands of liters of novel coronavirus–killing, top-grade hand sanitizer, according to two University of Bristol professors.
Organic chemist Timothy Gallagher and bioengineer Adam Perriman hatched the plan in early March. Perriman learned of a World Health Organization recipe for making hand sanitizers in small batches in local communities. The WHO’s recipe was simple and straightforward and provided two formulas to guide individuals in producing hand sanitizer. One was based on ethanol; the other on isopropyl alcohol.
Along with alcohol, the recipe requires only hydrogen peroxide (to kill bacteria), glycerol (a humectant to protect skin), and sterile distilled or boiled cold water. Other needs included devices to transfer liquids, lots of plastic or glass containers, and some muscle.
Gallagher and Perriman discussed the recipe, realized they had all the materials, and decided to have a go at it. They planned to start in one of their kitchens, but after family objections, processing migrated to the basement.
They began by making single, small batches of 5–10 L, experimenting with both alcohols. As the health crisis expanded, it soon became clear that there was going to be big demand for sanitizers in Bristol and around the world. They had to expand.
So production migrated again, this time to their vacant individual research labs.
Soon, however, during a virtual university-wide staff meeting, someone else raised the idea of making sanitizer on campus. Gallagher and Perriman acknowledged they were already making small batches of the product. They wound up with the university’s blessing to scale up further.
School of Chemistry staff at the University of Bristol have made 2,500 L of hand sanitizer for their community.
That required addressing legal and regulatory issues. Alcohol regulations required certification by the government’s revenue and customs office. They decided to use the isopropyl alcohol formulation, because isopropyl alcohol was easier to obtain, and its use required a demonstration of purity standards, set by the UK Health and Safety Executive.
A particularly thorny regulatory requirement was the need to demonstrate that their product was pure and held less than 2 ppm of benzene, Gallagher says. The necessary analysis was done by their own School of Chemistry
Sigma-Aldrich, the chemical provider and a strong backer of their project, aided the Bristol team by interacting directly with the UK regulators. Although working with regulators may be routine for chemical companies, distillers, and others who also turned their operations to produce hand sanitizer to help address COVID-19, the academic chemists were on a sharp learning curve. The company’s role as a guide was “phenomenal,” Gallagher says.
“We learned more about regulations and procurement than we ever wanted to know,” says Gallagher.
The project truly became a team and community effort. To make the product, they settled on a core team of 10 volunteers. In fact, they had to turn volunteers away.
The core production group at Bristol consisted of 10 volunteers—faculty, university staff, and a sprinkling of postdocs. Additional volunteers had to be turned away.
Production is not much of a chemistry learning experience, Gallagher notes, unless you want to be a bartender.
“This is not chemistry,” he says, “but more like mixing cocktails.”
The mixing takes place in two large teaching labs. The team uses a sixth-floor lab of the chemistry building to do large-scale mixing, while pump bottles are filled in a fifth-floor lab.
The team mixes sanitizer in 10 L batches and can produce 750 L in a 5-hour day. They considered increasing production further, but dropped the idea—although they are skilled at handling chemicals, moving larger quantities of flammable materials through the chemistry building raised safety concerns.
“Stick with what we know is our theme,” Gallagher says. They have produced some 2,500 L so far and have distributed 2,000 L.
Most of the hand sanitizer has gone to local hospitals, elder centers, trash and recycling collectors, postal workers, pharmacists, and shops to be used by people who must interact with others in the community.
Bristol is hardly alone. University chemistry and pharmacy faculty around the globe are leading and supporting projects like this. A quick search turns up projects elsewhere in the UK as well as in Canada and the US. Gallagher and Perriman have fielded several inquiries and provided a production map to the Heads of Chemistry UK, an independent body representing some 70 departments engaged in chemical education, scholarship, and research in universities in the UK and Ireland.
They may have a tiger by the tail. The demand for hand sanitizer is certainly going to grow as communities across the world look to resume social and economic activity while minimizing virus transmission—including whenever research labs reopen and students return to classes at the University of Bristol.